A few nights ago, I watched the recent two-hour documentary attributed to Ken Burns (it was actually mainly the work of his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon), The Central Park Five. The story will be familiar to many: in April 1989, New York City was aflame with outrage over the spate of what newspapers called “wilding” on the part of alleged Black thugs from the Harlem ghetto, who were said to have run amok in Central Park’s northern area, attacking white joggers and others without provocation. A woman jogger named Trisha Meili was not only attacked but brutally raped and left almost dead. New York officials like then-Mayor Ed Koch issued inflammatory statements about a city “out of control” with lawlessness, with tabloid newspapers like the Daily News and the New York Post blaring huge headlines and outraged columns about the “beasts” and “animals” responsible. Very quickly, police apprehended five teenagers and charged them with the crime of rape, and perhaps murder if Trisha Meili died from her wounds.
As it turned out, Meili did not die from her wounds, but it didn’t matter. Five teenagers—Antron McCray, Yusuf Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Kevin Richardson—were said to have confessed to the crime after interrogation, were charged, and released pending trial. Those confessions, videotaped by one of the prosecutors, Elizabeth Lederer, played a key part, indeed, the only part, in the evidence at the trial. Though they did not match each other (each defendant gave a different version of events, basically accusing the others of the rape but not himself), and though each defendant, when he learned he was being charged with the crime, withdrew his confession, the confessions were nevertheless played at the trial and persuaded the jury to convict all five defendants. The jurors convicted the teens despite the lack of any other evidence, physical or otherwise, and despite the fact that the DNA evidence found at the scene did not match any of the defendants. The confessions, with each defendant supplying details of the crime (again, the details did not match each other), overrode all other evidence or lack of it. One juror, recounting how he held out for hours because of the contradictions in the evidence, emphasized repeatedly how fully persuasive the confessions were to most jurors. The idea was, ‘Why would someone confess and supply small details of the crime, if he was innocent?’
This becomes the key question in the documentary. For it turns out that someone else, not the five teenagers who spent five to ten years in prison for it, actually committed the crime on April 19, 1989 in Central Park. Matias Reyes, who had raped several other women, was in prison when he met one of the defendants, Raymond Santana, years later. Struck by uncharacteristic remorse that someone else was paying for his crime, Reyes confessed that he was actually the Central Park rapist, and supplied conclusive details of the rape that no one else had. His DNA was found to be a match to evidence at the scene. New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau convened a review panel, and on the basis of their examination of the case, four of the Central Park Five were exonerated and released. The fifth, Raymond Santana, had been convicted of a drug charge and was only released somewhat later.
The point, though, remained: five teenagers had confessed to a crime they did not commit, and served years in prison because of those confessions. How could this happen?
I wrote about a similar trial-by-confession in a blog titled “And Justice for All” on July 13, 2011. This one involved the “Norfolk 4”, a group of US sailors convicted of the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko in 1997. One sailor, Danial Williams, “confessed” to the crime after a grueling interrogation, but since his DNA didn’t match the semen taken from the crime scene, he was induced to implicate his roommate, Joe Dick—whose semen also didn’t match, and who then implicated several others (seven men were eventually implicated in turn). Four were eventually convicted of the crime, along with Omar Ballard, whose DNA did match, and who had actually committed the rape and murder.
And why were the other four convicted? Again, because of those persistent confessions.
It turns out that this business of false confessions is not all that unusual in our justice system. Especially since the Innocence Project began its investigations a few years ago, literally hundreds of wrongful convictions have been attributed to the nefarious effects of false confessions (now considered one of the leading causes of error in the U.S. justice system). Among the researchers who have written about this, Richard Leo and Saul Kassin (interviewed in the Central Park Five documentary) are most prominent. And what they have found is that, contrary to most people’s convictions about this (Why would anyone confess if he/she is innocent? On TV, only the guilty confess, and we’re always relieved when they do.), it’s rather easy for police to get confessions out of certain types of people—especially adolescents like the Central Park Five—and they do it routinely. First, they isolate the suspect, sometimes keeping him awake for long hours. Second, they emphasize how powerless he is in custody, and how convincing is the evidence they have (police routinely lie, even on TV, about the alleged evidence). Kassin, Leo et. al. note a case from Florida in this same year of 1989, State v. Cayward, where “the defendant’s confession was suppressed because police had typed up a phony crime laboratory report that placed Cayward’s DNA on the victim.” One would think such lying would be illegal, but the court vacated the confession not because the lie had led to a false confession, but because “it might find its way into court as evidence.” In fact, it is actually legal for U.S. police to lie in interrogations (though Britain has laws prohibiting this). The same is true of the leniency implication that the police routinely convey to suspects. Though police can’t overtly promise leniency in exchange for a confession, they can and do imply that a confession will favorably affect the case, allow the suspect to end the interrogation, and minimize whatever punishment might eventuate. This was apparently a major factor for the Central Park Five. Alternately threatening and befriending the young men, police convinced them that the only way they could get out of the unbearable stress they were under was to confess. Exhausted and scared, the teens, like most of their peers, were particularly susceptible to this kind of pressure. They fit the profile of those most likely to succumb to police pressure: highly suggestible, tending to have poor memories (the police often supply them with the information that shows up in confessions), highly anxious, and possessed of low self-esteem.
But what about Miranda rights, you may ask? Weren’t these kids read their rights? Why did they talk at all; why not ask for a lawyer? The stats are amazing: according to Richard Leo, “fully four out of five suspects waive their rights under Miranda.” Especially teenagers seem to have difficulty even understanding what Miranda means: one group that was tested, though they seem to have understood the words, had no idea of the implications of Miranda, with one interpreting Miranda as follows: “That means I can’t talk until they tell me to.” In the Central Park Five case, all five suspects submitted to questioning without ever asking for a lawyer, though one or two had parents present—who seemed not to know about their rights either, or, more likely, figured that it would cost more than they could afford to hire a lawyer. None seemed to understand that the law requires that a lawyer, a public defender, be supplied.
One other major factor operated in the Central Park Five case, and in many others. Innocence. While most of us would consider being innocent a major plus in our favor, in many cases, Kassin notes, innocence may actually put people at risk. This is because people tend to believe that “truth and justice will prevail and that their innocence will become transparent to investigators, juries, and others,” and so they fully cooperate and waive their rights. In one famous case, 18-year-old Peter Reilly falsely confessed to murdering his mother, later saying:
‘‘My state of mind was that I hadn’t done anything wrong and I felt that only a criminal really needed an attorney, and this was all going to come out in the wash’’ (Connery, 1996, p. 93).
Something like this seems to have operated in the case of the Central Park Five. All seem to have thought that they were witnesses rather than suspects, and that their confessions blaming others but not themselves for the actual rape would show how innocent they were, and eventually absolve them. They did not. Instead, their confessions persuaded the jury that they were guilty, even absent any other corroborating evidence, even in the face of conflicting evidence. The confessions persuaded the judge and the prosecutors, too, who have been found to be particularly aggressive and punitive when a confession is involved. As to the police, Kassin points out several studies showing that the interrogation procedure itself, contrary to what we might like to think, is deeply compromised by a prior belief in guilt:
The purpose of interrogation is therefore not to discern the truth, determine if the suspect committed the crime, or evaluate his or her denials. Rather, police are trained to interrogate only those suspects whose culpability they ‘‘establish’’ on the basis of their initial investigation (Gordon & Fleisher, 2006; Inbau, Reid, Buckley, & Jayne, 2001).
What is astonishing in the Central Park case is that even after Matias Reyes confessed, and even after the DNA evidence confirmed that he was indeed the perpetrator of the rape, and even after the convictions of the five were vacated, neither the police nor the Chief Prosecutor would admit to having made a mistake. Chief Prosecutor Linda Fairstein, in fact, who made her reputation on the fame of her convictions of the Central Park Five, maintained even afterwards that all five of the teenagers had been part of the rape and Matias had only “completed the assault.” The police who had elicited the false confessions slammed District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and his review panel for allegedly defaming police who had “done nothing wrong.” As to the press, they minimized the coverage of the miscarriage of justice they’d once cheered for so mightily, indicating once again their concern to sensationalize what sells rather than testify to the bland reality of truth.
I would strongly recommend the PBS video to anyone interested in how the Justice System in these United States of America really works. You can easily watch it online at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/. I would also recommend the website www.falseconfessions.org <http://www.falseconfessions.org> . There you can find statistics on false confessions and copies of the essay from which I have quoted liberally by Kassin, Leo et. al. You’ll be sobered and perhaps shocked to fully realize that the linchpin of what passes for conclusive proof in our legal system is really fraught with pitfalls for defendants, especially the young, vulnerable people of color who are so often targeted by our allegedly impartial system of justice.