Frontier Psychiatrist

Presumed Guilty – A Review of The Central Park Five

Posted on: July 18, 2011

To me, Central Park is paradise: a oasis of green and quiet in a city of concrete and noise, a place for picnics and bike rides, reservoir runs and charity walks, Shakespeare plays and symphony concerts, rock and jazz shows, drinks on the pond, and, in years past, a grassy classroom for my  students on spring days.

Twenty years ago, the park had more sinister connotations. The Central Park Jogger rape case cemented the city’s reputation in the late 1980’s as a nightmare fraught with random violence and racial tension. The story seemed simple: a young white woman jogs at night in the park where she nearly bleeds to death after being raped and beaten by a group of black and Latino teenagers. “The Central Park Five” were convicted and served between 7 and 13 years in prison. There was only one problem: they didn’t do it. In 2003, a serial rapist confessed to the crime, and the Central Park Five were exonerated—after they had served their full sentences.

A new book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, revisits this famous case and infamous miscarriage of justice. In brisk and brutal fashion –not unlike Janet Malcolm’s recent Iphigenia in Forest Hills–author Sarah Burns reconstructs the crime, the investigation, the courtroom drama, and the ultimate exoneration. What emerges is a tale of scared and overwhelmed teenagers and their families who fell victim to duplicitous detectives, cocky prosecutors, bumbling defense attorneys, an unsympathetic judge, and a sensational news media that helped convict them in the court of public opinion, often with racist language that likened the accused to savages and wild animals.

The Central Park Five has obvious appeal to New Yorkers, city dwellers, and fans of legal thrillers. As Newsweek declared last August: “The only thing the public loves more than a good true-crime story is a good exoneration.” Beyond its sensational subject, the book is a thoughtful meditation on the role of race, class, politics, and the media in American society.

Throughout, Burns sympathizes with the falsely accused. Of course, she has the advantage of hindsight. She encountered the story as a legal researcher in 2003, after the exoneration. Nonetheless, she argues that people should have known better at the time. Police and prosecutors should have made the link to the serial rapist. Defense attorneys should have fought harder. And the jury, media, and public should have been more skeptical of the holes and inconsistencies in the case, instead of being bent on revenge.

But as neuroscientist David Eagleman argues in his new book Incognito, people see what they want to see; the human brain ignores evidence that contradicts its own predictions. As Burns spells out, many New Yorkers swallowed a story that confirmed their deepest fears and racial prejudices. Remember: this was the decade of Bensonhurst, Howard Beach, and Bernie Goetz. And the accused themselves confessed crimes they didn’t commit because they wrongly thought cooperation with the police would set them free.

In retrospect, it’s tempting to label the erroneous verdict as a product of its time. DNA testing—a nascent science in 1989— is now a precise tool to establish guilt or innocence. (Since then, there have been 272 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S., according to the Innocence Project.)  Race relations have improved in the city, state, and country, as evidenced by an African-American mayor, governor, and president. And New York is a far safer city in which people are less fearful for their safety and security than they were 20 years ago, even considering the September 11 attacks.

Still, Burns urges caution. Our criminal justice system remains imperfect and vulnerable to error and manipulation. Even in the age of Obama, the notion of a “post-racial” society seems premature. And the mass media still plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion. If we want a just society, we must be on guard for times when “popular narrative” trumps “actual evidence.”

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist.

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3 Responses to "Presumed Guilty – A Review of The Central Park Five"

The Central Park Five were NOT innocent. They did go on a rampage thru the park, then pounced on the jogger, some of them attemped rape, but went limp, except for one of the six or seven present. Five were caught, the confessions only differed in degree of their own participation. The serial rapist, a degenerate braggart, years later claimed he acted alone to get the credit

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His book reviews for FP include The Central Park Five, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. He studied Japanese […]

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