'Central Park Five' case not a slam dunk

The Central Park Five. The Central Park Five. Photo Credit: "The Central Park Five"

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Leonard Levitt Leonard Levitt

Leonard Levitt is the author of “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force." ...

Lawyers for "The Central Park Five" have held two meetings with the city's new corporation counsel, Zachary Carter, and his staff to discuss a financial settlement in a case that remains a wound in NYC's racial psyche.

One of Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign promises was to settle the 25-year-old Central Park jogger case -- rather than to delay and litigate, the strategy of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg against anyone who sued New York. Some may view the settlement's terms as a harbinger of how de Blasio will lead the city.

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The Central Park Five are five minority teenagers who implicated each other in the beating and rape of a white female jogger in the park on April 19, 1989. They spent years in prison for a rape that even the city acknowledges they did not commit.

Lawyers who have dealt with Carter describe him as diligent and more responsive to plaintiffs' concerns than his predecessor, Michael Cardozo.

"Zach Carter is open to the fact that if there were wrongs, they need to be addressed," says attorney Sue Karten, who won a $3-million suit against the city for the family of Anthony Baez, who died in 1994 at the hands of an overaggressive police officer in the Bronx.

Clearly, there were wrongs in the jogger case. But lawyers contacted by NYPD Confidential who spoke on condition of anonymity said that to win monetary damages, the five must prove that the police and prosecutors were not merely wrong or negligent; they have to prove deliberate abuse and misconduct.

The confessions by the five teenagers are at the heart of both the criminal case and the lawsuit, which claims racial discrimination and malicious prosecution. Two of the teens were arrested in or near the park the night of the attack, and three were brought in the next day based on information from police questioning of more than 35 teenagers who were rampaging through the park in what came to be known as "wilding."

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The five confessed to beating the jogger. Each denied raping her but accused the others of having done so.

"They [the teenagers] can only recover if they can prove that the cops knew they were eliciting a false statement," said a lawyer who has sued the city in police-related cases but is not part of the jogger case. "The fact that they gave false confessions is not enough."

But a lawyer familiar with the case said: "How could the teenagers get all that detail into their confessions if the cops hadn't fed it to them? There is no other source for the information other than the police. If the police fed them this information, that makes it deliberate. And they covered up their misconduct."

Complicating the talks is an insistence by some in the police department that a settlement assert that the police did nothing wrong.

"Our report found, as did the trial judge and the district attorney, that neither the police in detaining and questioning the suspects nor the prosecutors in questioning them were guilty of any misconduct, and that a clear and unequivocal statement to that effect must be part of any fair settlement," said Michael Armstrong, who reinvestigated the case for the NYPD in 2002 after Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence, confessed to the rape. DNA evidence confirmed Reyes' claim.

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The problem, said another lawyer who has sued the city, "is that there has been a book and a movie. Politicians have taken it up [the case as a cause], which means that there is pressure on the corporation counsel to settle.

"The city has a lot to bargain with," he said. "Yet even if they are not sympathetic characters and have questionable backgrounds, these five teenagers did suffer, both for the years they spent in prison and in their public vilification."

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