Thursday, March 29, 2012

Damning reconstruction of notorious false confession case

Here's one from the annals of outrageous true crime cases:

On April 17, 1989, a woman was practicing tai chi in New York's Central Park, when a man sexually assaulted her. The rape was interrupted by a passerby who heard her yelling, but not before the woman was severely beaten to the point of requiring hospitalization. The woman gave police a detailed description of her attacker, including the fact that he had fresh stitches on his chin. Checking local hospitals, a detective found a match to an 18-year-old Puerto Rican man who worked nearby.

Mysteriously, the man was never questioned. The victim left town, the detective was transferred out of the sex crimes unit, and the case was closed as unsolved.

But as it turned out, this wasn't just one more rape in the Big Apple.

The East Side Slasher
The man escalated his attacks, terrorizing women in New York City. Dubbed the "East Side Slasher," he raped at least five other women and murdered one. His pattern was to beat or stab the women around the eyes, so they would not be able to identify him.

He was finally caught, when a woman broke free from him and alerted her doorman and a neighbor, who subdued him. Within hours, he had confessed on videotape to four rapes and the murder. With eyewitness identification and DNA evidence conclusively tying him to the crimes, he took a deal of 33 years to life.

Have you recognized this case yet?

While police knew that Matias Reyes was slashing and raping women around Manhattan's East Side during 1988 and 1989, there was one case they didn't think to link him to. That was the assault on Trisha Meili on April 19, 1989, as she was jogging in Central Park -- an assault that would quickly rivet the world.

Trisha Meili
In hindsight, it seems incomprehensible that Reyes was not a suspect. The crime fit his modus operandi, in that Meili was beaten most heavily around her eyes. The assault occurred just two days after the one on the tai chi practitioner, also in Central Park. And, most amazingly, a police officer who knew Reyes chatted with him as he strolled out of the park just minutes after Meili was raped and left for dead.

On his head, Reyes was wearing the victim’s distinctive headphones.

Reyes left his DNA behind. But police never thought to compare it to him. Not until more than a decade later, after he voluntarily confessed.

As we now know, police failed to consider Reyes as a possible suspect in the infamous Central Park Jogger case because they already had their suspects: A group of African American and Latino boys who were causing trouble in the park that night.

Sarah Burns
Through legal documents and myriad interviews (including with Matias Reyes), author Sarah Burns reconstructs this landmark miscarriage of justice, focusing on the role of racism in generating a collective hysteria that overwhelmed all reason: "Race not only inspired the extreme reactions to the crime; it also made it easier for so many to believe that these five teenaged boys had committed the crime in the first place, and no one was suggesting that they might, in fact, be innocent."

(Actually, a couple of intrepid columnists from New York Newsday, Jim Dwyer and Carol Agus, were expressing public doubts during the trial about the strength of the evidence connecting the youths to the crime, but their voices were not enough to turn the tide of public opinion. "We are waiting to see if there is any believable evidence that will connect these kids to the crime. So far, we haven't heard any," wrote Agus. And when referring to one of the youths' statement to police, both columnists placed quotation marks around the word confession, expressing skpeticism that it was authentic, Burns notes. Wrote columnist Dwyer, "nothing close to the words in this statement ... ever sat on the lips of a 14 and a half year old.")

Burns provides fascinating insights into the investigatory myopia that is so often present in false confession cases. Based on her access to the entire trial transcripts, she also critiques the weak defenses the boys received, which made their convictions all the more guaranteed. And she corrects much of the misleading mythology built up around the case. For instance, these boys were not the serious delinquents that the media portrayed them as, nor did most of them come from broken homes.

The first trial
Perhaps most amazing about this case is the vitriolic manner in which certain media outlets and high-profile people continue to insist that the boys are guilty, despite all evidence to the contrary. I hope this excellent historical reconstruction may help to set the record straight. I'm also looking forward to the documentary, which Burns is now working on with her father, filmmaker Ken Burns.

My Amazon review of The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, is HERE. (If you like it, please click "yes," this review was helpful.) 

POSTSCRIPT:  You've read (or at least read about) the book; now see the movie. The Central Park Five just premiered at a special screening in Cannes. National broadcast on PBS is planned for 2013 or 2014. Meanwhile, the filmmakers -- who include book author Sarah Burns, her father Ken Burns and David McMahon -- are angling for a theatrical release. The Hollywood Reporter has the Cannes review (HERE).

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