Bill de Blasio, considered one of the more progressive candidates in recent history, begins his term as the 109th mayor of New York on January 1. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, dubbed the “mayor of the rich,” is leaving a city accused of ignoring the parts of the city that are most in need of help and famous for “stop and frisk” policies that largely targeted black and brown males as a way to fight crime. De Blasio’s focus on this division propelled him into an easy win to become the first Democratic mayor in twenty years.
He has vowed to deal with the issues that the outgoing administration has ignored. This includes focus on increasing taxes on the rich in order to pay for more pre-school and afterschool programs, building more affordable housing units, and ending the police department’s stop and frisk policy, which was ruled unconstitutional in August. He has also promised to put a close to a disturbing chapter in the city’s history which began twenty-five years ago.
In the spring of 1989 New York was reeling from near financial ruin and a decade of one the highest crime rates in the city’s history. In April of that year, a young woman was jogging in Central Park when she was brutally beaten and raped. In the days that followed, reports filled newspapers and the airwaves of a gang…a wilding…a wolf pack of Hispanic and African-American teens rampaging through the streets causing chaos. According to police, a group ended up in the park and randomly found the jogger and dragged her to a remote part of the park. Possibly up to seven of them beat her – with their fists or a lead pipe – and raped her at least three times. They left her to die, half naked and bound.
While she was in the hospital on life-support, seven teenagers, aged 13-17 were brought in for questioning. Within days, five of them would be arrested and charged with rape, murder and aggravated assault. After almost two days of interrogation and no legal representation for the teens, one of whom reportedly suffered from learning and hearing disabilities, they confessed to the attack. With conflicting details, they each described the attack and explained why they did it in videotaped confessions. Almost a year and a half later with no physical evidence linking them to the crime and only their coerced confessions, they were convicted of rape, assault, riot and robbery. One was convicted of attempted murder. They faced different sentencing, but faced anywhere from 5 to 20 years.
Thirteen years later, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer, would stand at the site of the attack telling investigators how he had raped and brutalized a young woman on that April evening in 1989, beating her so viciously he thought she would die. He wiped her blood off his hands and went home.
He admitted that he alone was the one who had committed the attack.
By the time of the confession, all of the now grown men had served their time, ranging from six to thirteen years, for a crime they never committed. One of them, Kharey Wise, got out of prison just a few months after the only DNA evidence collected was tested and matched to Reyes.
Kharey Wise and Matias Reyes were serving their sentences at Rikers Island at the same time.
Even with the new evidence and confession, Reyes was never charged because the statute of limitations had run out (he was already serving time for the rape and murder of a woman committed four months after the jogger attack). The district attorney at the time never declared the so-called “Central Park Five” innocent, but withdrew the charges and decided not to retry the case. In December 2002, New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada granted a motion to vacate all of their convictions. The next year, the men sued New York City and the police department for violation of their civil rights, seeking $250 million dollars in damages.
The lawsuits remain unresolved.
In January 2013, city comptroller John Liu urged the city to settle the case, citing the expense of more than a decade of legal fees and the amount of damages that they could be required to pay if a jury ruled against the city. He also said it was about justice.
“This troubling case has spanned the administrations of four Mayors — Edward Koch, David Dinkins, Rudolph Giuliani, and now Michael Bloomberg,” Liu said in his statement. “In the last year of his third term, Mayor Bloomberg has an historic opportunity to provide closure to all those involved. Let’s hope that 2013 is the year when all parties help close this terrible chapter in our City’s history, so that New Yorkers can finally put an end to the tragic ‘Central Park Five’ saga.”
The city, while maintaining that there was no wrongdoing involved, has refused to settle saying that the amount sought far exceeds the statutory award for wrongful conviction of $100,000 per year of incarceration.
On January 4, 2013, Bill de Blasio supported John Liu’s sentiments on his Facebook page.
“It’s long past time to heal the wounds of the Central Park Five case. Comptroller John Liu is absolutely right in calling for an end to this painful chapter in our history. As a city, we have a moral obligation to right this injustice. It is in our collective interest—the wrongly accused, their families and the taxpayer—to settle this case and not let another year slip by without action.”
The statement was made when he was still a long-shot in the Democratic primary. One year later, he has become the fifth mayor to carry the burden of the Central Park Five. For Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam, let’s hope he will be the one to finally close the chapter.
Photo Credit: Kevin Case via Wikimedia Commons