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Fri, 06.20.2014

The ‘Central Park Five Case’ is Settled

*On this date in 2014, New York City agreed to a $40 million settlement with five non-white men falsely convicted in the vicious rape and beating of a Central Park jogger in 1989.

The defendants of the settlement, often called the “Central Park Five,” when approved, will close the books on one of the most lurid crime cases in New York history. The five Black and Hispanic defendants were found guilty as teenagers in 1990 in the attack on a white woman (an investment banker) who had gone for a run in the park.  With New York awash in murder and drugs at the time, the crime was seen as a terrifying symbol of the city's racial and class divide and evidence that it was sliding into lawlessness.

The case introduced the term "wilding" for urban mayhem by marauding teenagers. The defendants served six to 13 years in prison before their convictions were thrown out in 2002 because of evidence that someone else, acting alone, committed the crime. The five brought a $250 million civil rights lawsuit against police and prosecutors.

Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement that the tentative settlement signifies "a monumental victory" for the men and their families. "It is also a victory for those in the community that stood with them from day one and believed in their innocence in this case," Sharpton said. "As supporters, we were viciously attacked for standing with them, but we were on the right side of history."

The victim, Trisha Meili, then 28, was found in the brush, more than 75 percent of her blood drained from her body, and her skull smashed. She was in a coma for 12 days, suffered permanent damage, and remembers nothing about the attack. Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, both 14 at the time, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, 15, and Korey Wise, 16, were rounded up and arrested. After hours of interrogation, four of them gave confessions on video. At the trials, their lawyers argued the confessions were coerced. DNA testing was not sophisticated enough to make or break the case at the time.

In 2002, a re-examination of the case found that DNA on the victim's sock pointed to Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist who confessed that he alone attacked the jogger. Then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau stopped short of declaring the five innocent but withdrew all charges and did not seek a retrial. The statute of limitations for charging Reyes had run out; he is serving a life sentence for other crimes. The case that symbolized urban lawlessness became an example of a breakdown in the legal system. Jonathan C. Moore, a lawyer for the five men, declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department.

Andrew G. Celli, a lawyer who represented documentary filmmakers and others interested in the case, welcomed news of a settlement and said, "A settlement this large, this dynamic, will have an impact," he said. "It will cause police and prosecutors to think a bit more carefully about the ramifications of a particular investigation."

The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sexual assault, but Meili went public as a motivational speaker and wrote a book. While the five men have been exonerated, some troubling questions persist.  The two doctors who treated Meili after the attack said in recent interviews with The Wall Street Journal that some of her wounds were inconsistent with Reyes' account. The doctors said that should call into question Reyes' claim that he acted alone.

A federal judge settled the agreement for 41 million dollars in 2014.  Another youth was exonerated in 2022.


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