How many crimes give birth to a new term for savagery? That was the legacy of the Central Park jogger case, which in 1989 introduced New York City and the world to the word wilding. It came to stand for a racial nightmare: a young, white female stockbroker goes jogging in the park and is raped, beaten and left near dead by a giddy horde of teenagers. Within days, five black and Hispanic teenagers, ages 14 to 16, were arrested and charged with the crime. The teens--Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise--had been part of a larger rampage in which several people were randomly attacked in the park that night. The boys described it as wilding, and four of them confessed on videotape that the jogger had been one of their victims. They later recanted, saying their statements had been coerced, but all were convicted.
After they were sentenced, the case faded from most people's memories until last January, when Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist serving a 33-years-to-life sentence, confessed that he alone had raped the jogger. Citing new DNA evidence that corroborated Reyes' involvement in the crime and noting discrepancies in the earlier confessions, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau last week asked a judge to throw out the convictions of the five men. District Judge Charles J. Tejada is expected to rule in their favor, opening the door for the five to file civil lawsuits. But whatever he does will undo little. The last of the men, now in their late 20s, completed his sentence in August.
How could prosecutors admit to such a mistake after 13 years? In a 58-page court filing, the lawyers assigned to investigate Reyes' claim wrote that "ultimately, there proved to be no physical or forensic evidence recovered at the scene or from the person or effects of the victim which connected the defendants to the attack on the jogger, or could establish how many perpetrators participated."
The weaknesses in the evidence were there from the start. The teenagers confessed to the attack, yet their versions of what happened that night varied widely, from their descriptions of the victim to their account of the crime's location. There were also inconsistencies about the weapon. Several boys talked of stabbing her repeatedly, but there were no knife wounds. Although their parents were present for part of their questioning, the most damaging admissions all appear to have come when the adults were out of the room.
Perhaps more important, eyewitness testimony from other victims that night seems to suggest that at the time the jogger was being attacked, the boys were involved in muggings elsewhere in the park. Moreover, Reyes had committed another assault in the park a few days earlier; if investigators had noted the similarities in the cases, they might have considered other suspects besides the boys. The police "had made up their minds," says Roger Wareham, the attorney for McCray, Santana and Richardson. "They weren't going to let anything spoil their neatly tied package of convictions, and they used these children as scapegoats."