I recently watched a very interesting documentary entitled “Central Park Five.” It really gave me pause. The story was about a woman who was raped in Central Park in 1989. On that same night, there was a group of teenagers caught in the park, harassing people and beating up a homeless man. Five of those teenagers (four of whom were under the age of 16) were taken to the police station for their antics that night. While they were still at the station, the police learned about the woman who was raped. The police believed that these were individuals responsible for the rape. Luckily for the woman (but unlucky for the boys), she could not remember the incident and, therefore, could not identify her attacker(s).
These boys were questioned about the rape, and, of course, they denied it at first. Then the police began lying to them, as so happens much too often. The police began telling the boys, separately, that the other boys had already given their stories, and each boy was told by police that the other boys named him as the assailant. Upon hearing this, each boy decided to tell his own version of the events, naming all of the other boys as the assailants. The police began feeding “facts” to each boy to appear as if his statement was believable. When it was all said and done, all five were charged with the rape of this woman, but none of them had actually committed the crime.
There were many problems with this case from the start, but none of the authorities involved thought to stop and actually examine the evidence for what it was. They all believed that these boys committed this crime, and so they only looked at the “evidence” that would support that theory. DNA evidence came back, which matched none of these boys. That, apparently, did not matter to the police and the district attorney. There were blatant contradictions in the five statements of these boys. That, apparently, did not matter to the police and the district attorney. These boys were involved in other mishaps in different locations in the park at the same time the rape took place. That, apparently, did not matter to the police and the district attorney. All five were convicted based entirely upon their “confessions.” It was apparent that the jury could not answer the question of why someone would admit to a crime he did not commit.
But, the answer is that there are lots of reasons why someone would admit to a crime he did not commit. In this case, it was because the boys were lied to and told that others had already implicated them in the crime. In order to steer the guilt away from themselves, they told the police what the police wanted to hear. The boys were very young, and they were interrogated for hours, deprived of sleep, food, and water. They told these lies to make it all go away, as they were promised that once they gave their statements, they could return home. They were scared, and they did not know else to do. And the people they were supposed to be trusting took advantage of that trust and lied.
I am absolutely certain that the police and the district attorney still, to this day, believe they did nothing wrong in that case. I am sure they believe these boys committed this rape, and they are still probably patting themselves on the back for solving this crime. The police do not see anything wrong with only examining the evidence that fits their version of the events and then doing a little lying to get to, what they consider to be, the truth.
In this case, however, there was a lot wrong with it. Five children went to jail for a crime none of them committed. Four of the five boys were under the age of 16 and given a sentence of five to ten years, with most being released after seven years. The fifth boy was over the age of 16 and sentenced as an adult. He was incarcerated for 13 years. While he was incarcerated, he met the person who actually committed this rape, and that person later confessed. When the old DNA evidence was examined against this new suspect, it was a perfect match. The actual assailant had even described details that were not known to the public, and some that were not known to the police. There was no doubt that this was the actual assailant, and the trial court vacated the convictions of these five boys.
The problem is that a sentence and a criminal history can be vacated, but the time spent behind bars will always remain. So many lives were destroyed by the actions of those who were supposed to protect us. Too many lives were forever changed, while these police and district attorneys congratulated themselves on their lying and deceit. It was not only these five boys that suffered, but it was also their families, their friends, the victim, the victim’s family and friends, as well as the future victims of the actual perpetrator. Had he been caught at the time of the crime, he would not have been out on the street to commit these future crimes. One of the boys was released after seven years’ incarceration, but found it very difficult to obtain a job with a criminal past. He began selling drugs, and was placed back into prison. Thus, one must ask if he ever would have committed any kind of crime, had it not been for the shoddy police work that took away his childhood.
I dislike that police lie to suspects, and that seems to be acceptable to everyone. When Miranda v. Arizona was first decided by the Supreme Court, the Court discussed the lies that police tell suspects. But the Court never made that a part of its ruling and, thus, lying is perfectly acceptable. It shouldn’t be. We should all look to the police as role models, but we can’t. We, unfortunately, cannot trust anything they tell us.
My biggest problem with this case, however, is the sheer lack of police work that was involved with this case. Police and detectives are supposed to follow the evidence, not make the evidence into what they want it to be to fit into their preconceived notions of what actually happened in the case. Had they done that, they would have seen, right from the start, that these boys did not commit this crime. I wish I could say this was a one-time occurrence, and this is down in New York City where the police are busy and took a short cut. But, I have, unfortunately, seen this exact behavior in cases here in Connecticut. And not just once. There have been many times over the years when people ask me how I can be a criminal defense attorney. The answer is not to see guilty people go free. The answer is to make sure the state has the proper evidence to convict someone and can prove that guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the state can do that, then my job is to make sure my client is treated fairly and given a sentence that fits both the crime and the offender. If the state cannot do that, however, then my job is to make sure I keep honest people honest. I want to make sure the state is not trying to make my client look guilty because proving his guilt would fit their version of the how the evidence should look. Everyone needs someone fighting for them, no matter what that person did or didn’t do. That is why I am a criminal defense lawyer.