By Lee A. Daniels
How much is a person’s innocence worth?
That’s the most fundamental question framing the news that, after years of bitter dispute, a settlement has been reached in the lawsuit stemming from the notorious Central Park Jogger case that a quarter-century ago inflamed racial tensions in New York City and across the country, sent five black and Latino youth to prison for years–and since then has become one of the best-known examples of the injustice that’s corroded much of America’s criminal justice system.
The five men, who, though 14 to 16 years old at the time, were tried as adults for beating and raping the young White woman, will now receive about a million dollars for each year they served in prison. Four of the men—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana Jr.–spent about seven years in prison. One, Kharey Wise, served about 13 years.
More than a decade after their trial, DNA and other evidence uncovered by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office proved that none of the five youths had beaten and raped the jogger. The evidence tied the attack to one man, Matias Reyes, who by then was in prison for murdering a woman shortly after he had attacked the jogger, then confessed to the crime.
The convictions of the five were vacated in 2002, but for a decade the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to settle their lawsuit that charged that police and prosecutors had deliberately suppressed the DNA and other evidence. City officials, however, then maintained that the police and prosecutors had not committed any wrongdoing and therefore could not be held liable.
By contrast, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January, moved quickly to settle the case, which yet remains one of the most notorious examples of the egregious mistakes and willful misconduct by police, prosecutors and judges that have sentenced men and women of all backgrounds to long terms in prison–and some to death row.
Thanks to technological advances in the use of DNA evidence and action taken by some state legislatures and some police and prosecutors, too, the list of the exonerated has grown significantly in the decade since the Central Park Jogger Five were cleared.
According to data from The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization, there have now been 316 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the country. That includes 18 people who were sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence. The average sentence those convicted served before their DNA-based exoneration was nearly 14 years, 70 percent of those exonerated were people of color, and in 50 percent of the cases, the true criminal was identified by the DNA testing.
Undoubtedly, the most stunning example of the criminal justice system’s wrongful conviction dynamic is now unfolding in Brooklyn, N.Y. Growing doubts about numerous murders convictions obtained there in the 1980s and 1990s in recent years led the New York City borough’s long-time prosecutor, Charles J. Hynes, to establish an special unit to investigate claims of innocence. The result: in recent months six men who had already spent as much as 23 years in prison after being convicted of murder, have been exonerated and set free.
Now, Kenneth Thompson, Brooklyn’s newly-elected district attorney (who defeated Hynes last year in a bitterly-fought contest), is, as the New York Times put it in a recent news article, “grappling with a metastasizing wrongful conviction scandal in which dozens of imprisoned men have asked for freedom, their convictions linked to mistakes and misconduct by police and prosecutors in the violent, drug-plagued 1980s and 1990s. It is a tidal wave that could dwarf other exoneration clusters.”
This wrongful conviction scandal, mind you, concerns just one borough of one American city. But, like the Central Park Jogger case, the terrible miscarriage of justice that is being uncovered there underscores that for many individuals accused of a crime, the criminal justice system’s operating principle has been, not innocent until proven guilty, but guilty until proven innocent.
That terrible reality brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning, and a host of others. They include: How much is one’s innocence worth? How much is the wrongfully imposed stigma of a felony conviction worth? How much is the trauma of long years spent in prison worth? How much is the pain and the stigma endured by the family of those incarcerated worth?
And, how many more of those now incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons for serious and lesser crimes are still enmeshed in the trap the Central Park Five and others now exonerated endured: serving time for a crime they didn’t commit?
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.”