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.