Reasons for Doubt

Reasons for Doubt

When I was in college, I joined a court-watching project in Roxbury, Massachusetts. We observed criminal trials, then interviewed judges, lawyers and witnesses.


When I was in college, I joined a court-watching project in Roxbury, Massachusetts. We observed criminal trials, then interviewed judges, lawyers and witnesses. During one unforgettable interview, a judge told me he never worried about cases coming out wrong because: The police don’t have time to arrest innocent people. If the defendant didn’t commit this particular crime, he did something somewhere, sometime. It was the most unreflective rationalization of suspect profiling I had ever heard. At least until a few weeks ago.

In 1991, I attended the Central Park Jogger trial of three of the five defendants, recently exonerated by DNA evidence implicating a convicted murderer named Matias Reyes, who has confessed to assaulting the jogger by himself. I attended the trial with Kristin Bumiller, a political scientist at Amherst College. Kristin’s thoughts about the case are summarized in an anthology titled Feminism, Media, and the Law, edited by Martha Fineman and Martha McCluskey. In it, she analyzes the way the prosecution acted as a very effective scenographer leading the jury through an imagined world of terror-in-the-park, with its own geography, time line and plot.

My own concerns about misconduct in the trial did not find a publisher then. Now, for what it’s worth, perhaps it is possible to say that the courtroom mirrored the hysterical atmosphere in the city at large. Lines extended around the block for admission, as though it were a Broadway show. I remember a busload of Italian tourists showing up; they were turned away because the courtroom was full, but the tour guide promised to find them something just as exciting. Rafts of Hollywood celebrities dropped by for a look. (Did anyone pay a whit of attention to the testimony on those days?) Just getting in was like some surreal circus wedding: The press, like family, occupied the front two rows of both sides of the courtroom. (The defendants’ actual families, as potential witnesses, were barred from the courtroom.) For all other attendees, the bailiffs would determine at the door whether one was with the prosecution or the defense. When Kristin and I said neither, they seated us on the right, with the prosecution. Some called it the white side. The other side of the courtroom was usually entirely black.

During the trial, most members of the media were out of control–noisy, gum-chewing, sneering, distracting. They would stampede out of the courtroom at 4 o’clock to make their deadlines. Unfortunately, court lasted until 5, and the prosecution had the smarts to drag its questioning of witnesses out until the media left. Then the defense would begin cross-examining; thus, most qualifying and exculpatory information never made it into the public arena, because it played to an empty house.

It is also true that the defense attorneys were horrible. In particular, Yusef Salaam’s attorney, Robert Burns, seemed to have an almost comically addled brain, bumbling around the courtroom, at one point objecting to himself. It was unbearably sad, because Salaam had the strongest case, with strong witnesses on his behalf; he is also the one who refused to sign or videotape a confession. But then, these defendants should never have been tried together. They were too easily depicted as a clotted unit–the wilders, a singular pack, five individuals melded into one hyper-horrific, presumptively suspect profile.

As for the specifics of the case, the much-touted confessions were preceded by eighteen to thirty hours of nonstop questioning, sometimes under quite unorthodox circumstances. For example, Antron McCray, 15 at the time, was put in the back of a police car and driven around the park in the middle of the night. Police didn’t feel it necessary to translate every question into Spanish for Raymond Santana’s family for fear that it was “going to take us all day.” The confessions themselves were filled with inconsistencies and obvious factual errors no one took seriously until now. But to me, the most troubling aspect was that the original handwritten confessions were written in police-speak. One detective wrote down three of the four incriminating confessions before they were videotaped. My notes of his testimony regarding Raymond Santana’s confession reveal that he didn’t “know if I substituted Raymond’s words for my own, but I wrote down what I recall.” The male black? “Probably my words.” Female white? “He probably said white female. Or white girl.” Had sex? “I don’t recall if those were his words or mine.” Nor was the statement “in exactly the same order that he told me.”

Aside from the confessions, there was no evidence of any sort. This was an extraordinarily bloody crime–the jogger lost about three-quarters of the blood in her body–and the scene was a particularly muddy one. But there was no blood on any of the accused, nor were any of their footprints found at the scene. Soil traces in their sneakers that had a mineral content consistent with the ground of the entire upper half of Manhattan proved they were in the park that night, the prosecution said. While DA Elizabeth Lederer, in her final argument, maintained that hairs from the jogger were found on two of the defendants, the actual testimony of the forensic analyst was never so conclusive. Rather, he said the hairs were more consistent with Caucasian hair than African-American. But this point sailed over the heads of many in the courtroom–in part because there was such crude jocularity among the media–“did he say pubic hair?!” They were like teenagers, the bailiffs always shushing them.

When I read that Linda Fairstein, head of the Sex Crimes Unit, is still maintaining that these five young men were somehow involved in some criminal activity somewhere in the park that night, I thought of that judge in Roxbury so long ago. If there is evidence of other criminality, Fairstein should prosecute them for it. But this supposition was tested in the trial, and none of the other mugging victims in the park that night identified any of these young men as their attackers. If there is no additional evidence, Fairstein’s insinuation is gratuitous and, in view of likely lawsuits for damages, extremely self-serving.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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