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).


txfella said...

"(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,.......)"
You mean, besides their independent confessions, their independent revealing of the crime scene to investigators, and their independent ratting-out of each other? Yeah,.....pretty flimsy evidence to be sure. DNA evidence was in it's infancy at that time. Today the forensic teams would do a thorough analysis of the crime scene and there would be a far different outcome.
The "miscarriage" of justice is Burns and others of her ideological bent "reexamining" this horrific crime with the predetermined outcome of " Bad, very bad cops , poor underprivileged boys of color railroaded by the mean justice system".

Fazsha said...

Yes, in a city of 7 million, they 'didn't think' to connect Reyes to a rape that had happened 48 hours before. The standards we set for our cops are impossible, and if you were a cop you would be disgusted by the lack of public understanding.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Hi Fazsha,
You completely miss the point. Reyes was NEVER identified as a potential suspect. Not in 48 hours, not in 10 years. Despite the fact that he was a known rapist in the area, that his MO fit the crime, and that -- most damningly -- that he left his DNA behind. Yet at the same time, false confessions were forced out of a bunch of gullible kids who had nothing to do with the crime. I suggest reading the book The Central Park Five. I'd be surprised if you're still so outraged on behalf of the NYC PD's handling of the case after becoming more conversant with the actual facts.

Fazsha said...

Miss Karen, I'm extremely conversant with the case. In fact, the author of the book you refer to, Sarah Burns, is so invested in pinning the blame SOLELY on a known liar, another "gullible kid" of 18, that she refuses to put any stock into the 3 person commission findings of NO MISCONDUCT by the police and a likelihood that BOTH Reyes and the CPF attacked her.

Anonymous said...

Theres still a LOT of Morons on this planet, from some of the commenters on this topic, to the idiot in the White House in 2019 who refuses to believe (or admit) that a mistake was made and the NYPD used corrupt and dishonest measures to convict those kids so they could sweep the case under the rug. The actual guilty was caught for another rape, eventually found religion, and confessed, the original 5 had conflicting stories from the start and was threatened without parental or legal counsel present.
Reality is hard for those with racist blinders on.

Unknown said...

None of what you said matters at all, for the simple fact that Matias Reyes confessed to the Crime that these boys were convicted of.

Unknown said...

Obviously a police panel is going to defend their cops on a case this huge....And of course they're going to say it was Reyes and the CPF. TO SAVE THEIR ASSES

OdderPotter said...

Ms. Franklin, thanks for publishing this. However, I have to disagree with your point that the MO was the same. Yes, Reyes did stab his victims in the face, but the vast majority of his rapes took place in the victim's apartment. Had Ms. Meili been raped in her apartment, I could see how the cases would be linked. I am rather surprised that he didn't admit to this though when first arrested, considering his confession "out of the goodness of his heart" in 2002 was a true look at his sickness. He spent maybe two minutes detailing the rape and about 90 minutes chatting about his terrible childhood and his time between NYC and Puerto Rico. Had there not been DNA, I would have been skeptical at all that he committed this rape. Sociopaths like him enjoy bragging too much, and he sure was bragging about everything else. It's a shame that the statute of limitations meant that he couldn't be convicted.