Recent news of the $40 million settlement in the Civil Rights Lawsuit for the wrongful conviction of five men in the Central Park Jogger rape case forces me as a law student and social justice advocate to confront the institutional failures of our legal system. The incarceration of these young men did not happen absent powerful social forces influenced by deep-rooted racial biases. Sadly, many of these conventions and fears are as alive today as they were then, and people of color continue to be treated differently by our courts.
Who is responsible for this tragedy? Although it may be easy to blame the police dept. or jury, vilifying any one person or institution to the exclusion of others diminishes the true scope of this injustice. The overly ambitious prosecutor and the hasty detective played their respective roles within a larger system that tolerated racial prejudice and perpetuated systematized discrimination. It is this system that needs to be addressed.
In 1989, New York City residents confronted increasing economic and social disparities as drugs, guns and extreme poverty brought a new wave of crime and violence to the city. The newspapers and media chose to sensationalize the tragedy of the Central Park Jogger’s rape and fuel heated public debate over the issue of rising crime. Both politicians and law enforcement officials were under great pressure to execute swift and efficient justice to regain public trust. Accordingly, they quickly found suspects to assign blame and coerced false confessions with the promise that the young men could go home if they would simply “admit” their crime. The boys later retracted these initial confessions but this did not stop the jury from handing over a guilty verdict despite the lack of any DNA evidence linking them to the crime. Their trial and false convictions have done lasting damage to the constitutional imperatives of due process, equal protection, and lawful police investigation. Indeed, the ultimate result of these aggressive police tactics and swift execution of justice has broken the public’s trust instead of regained it.
This miscarriage of justice was more than just discriminatory police tactics. During the trial, prominent politicians and local leaders used the media to fuel racial animosity with talk of Jim Crow and the death penalty for these young men. Instead of deferring to the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, some public officials undermined this presumption by engaging in political posturing and media discourse that promoted negative stereotypes and inflamed racial biases. Why did the general public not speak out against the careless media or question the response of our political leaders more forcefully? Whether we turned a blind eye or stood with their families in solidarity, we all share some responsibility for the fate of these men. This responsibility obligates us as future social justice lawyers to prevent a similar recurrence by demanding more from our leaders, institutions, media, schools, and our own selves.
Being deprived of their childhood, families and formative years the Central Park Five paid the price. The City of New York will pay $41 Million to settle the case; $1 Million for each year the men spent in jail. Today, taxpayers continue to pay into a criminal justice system in desperate need of reform as race and socioeconomic status continue to tip the scales and influence the administration of justice. Young black men continue to be subjected to disparate treatment as the School to Prison pipeline and Stop and Frisk practices are conspicuously selective. Like the Central Park 5 rape case, the events in Ferguson, Missouri remind us that the dynamics of race and the resultant casualties are still very much alive and part of our nation’s unfinished narrative. Until we truly understand the past and commit to instituting comprehensive lasting reform, society will continue to pay the price.