Michael Tabman

The Central Park Five ~ A brutal rape; a brutal prosecution

In Crime and Security on May 5, 2013 at 7:02 pm

On April 19, 1989 a brutal, ruthless rape was perpetrated against a young lady who came to be known as the Central Park Jogger.  With a crime wave sweeping through New York City, this crime became the embodiment of the fear buried in the heart and mind of every New Yorker.  The intense media focus on the Central Park Rape fueled our collective fear and anger, and intensified the call for justice and revenge.  I recently watched the Central Park Five Documentary and many memories came to mind.  Not just informational, the film highlighted many weaknesses of our criminal justice system.

At the time of the Central Park Rape, I was an FBI Agent on the FBI-NYPD Drug Task Force.  The volume and nature of our work epitomized New York City’s violent crime epidemic. Times were tough and the state of the city was nothing less than frangible.

A few years earlier, Bernie Goetz, a middle age white male, shot four African-American youths on the subway, claiming he feared for his safety.  Goetz became widely lionized and dubbed the Subway Vigilante.  Public support for Goetz culminated in his not-guilty verdict for all charges except illegal possession of a weapon.  Crime and violence were the issues of the day in New York City.  The Central Park Rape seemed to be the last straw.

Immediately following the rape, five young men, aged 14 – 16 became the focus of the investigation.  These boys had been out that evening, in Central Park “wilding” – a term used at that time which was self-explanatory.  Based on my 27 year law enforcement career, I understand why the investigation focused on these boys; given the nature and locale of their conduct, that focus was reasonable.  What evolved afterwards was not reasonable.  What followed was institutional failure to prevent the foibles of human nature from prevailing over reason, fairness and professionalism.  This failure was so egregious, we must wonder if it was intentional, not just negligent.

New York City Police detectives are the most experienced in the world.  They know how to investigate and they know how to work the system.  The same can be said for the prosecutors. The film highlights how the police became so tunnel-visioned, so intent on clearing the case – as opposed to truly solving it, they abandoned their sense of justice and integrity.  Surely there was pressure from the public, the media and police brass to solve the case, but the NYPD did not exercise the necessary controls to assure that all that pressure did not prevail over the truth.  The film also highlighted the over aggressiveness of the prosecutors.

One point that hit a nerve with me was that the prosecutors also acted as investigators.  During my career with the FBI, I often had tense relationship with United States Attorney prosecutors as I sought to maintain an arm’s length between investigation and prosecution.  Investigators are charged with finding the facts lawfully, thoroughly and fairly.  The goal is not to produce an investigation gift-wrapped for prosecution.  To blur the lines between investigation and prosecution denies the independence of duties and responsibilities so integral to due process.

Though all the defendants confessed, there were clear signs of abusive tactics and coercion.  No physical evidence or DNA supported the police and prosecution version of events.  Yet, the prosecution moved forward and juries convicted all the young men.  Years later, the convictions were overturned when the real perpetrator was identified.

How does this happen?  How do we engage in such a miscarriage of justice, either intentionally or unaware of what we are doing?  This is not the first case of wrongful conviction.  Since 1989, there have been more than 2000 wrongful convictions. Even when we attempt to be fair and make the best decisions, we are vulnerable to many faults in our thought processes – cognitive biases, ego and perception, to name a few.  I discuss these and their impact on business and the criminal justice system in my first book, Walking the Corporate Beat: Police School for Business People.  In August 2011, I blogged about another wrongful conviction: The West Memphis 3.  I also blogged about my belief in a professional jury system to improve the quality of jury decisions.

Our criminal justice system is the best in the world.  Its biggest vulnerability is the human factor.  As we cannot exclude human involvement, we must plan for it.  Checks and balances, independent oversight and accountability are steps towards quality assurance.

Speaking of accountability, there is a pending lawsuit against the city, brought by the Central Park Five.  A New York City official said, “…we believe that no constitutional violations occurred.”   That speaks volumes.

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