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How the Loose Ends Are Allowed to Drop Rather than Be Tied

About a half-hour after blogging about the New York Times's "crusade" against Augusta, an endeavor that, yesterday, he showed involved the internal silencing of contrary voices, Instapundit Glenn Reynolds uses the Times's coverage as a springboard to discuss an aspect of the resurfaced 1989 Central Park jogger rape. I've got no ax to grind against the convicted "wilders," and I was too young (in the age range of the attackers, actually) back then to have really been interested in following the news closely enough to form a strong opinion, nor am I interested in taking on a fellow blogger with much more legal expertise than I can claim. However, I have to question Mr. Reynolds's quick move from the Times's story to apparent advocacy that the five prisoners involved receive a million dollars per year of imprisonment if they are let go.

From various news articles, it seems that the much-vaunted new evidence that the current DA, Robert Morgenthau, cites as reasons for his recommendation to vacate the convictions is threefold: 1) A confession by Matias Reyes, a life-sentenced fellow prisoner of one of the convicted men, 2) DNA evidence "linking" him to the crime, and 3) DNA tests disproving that hairs found on some of the convicted men were not from the victim.

For an opposing view from somebody who also has more legal knowledge than I do, take a look at a recent column on the topic by Ann Coulter (regardless of personal feelings toward Ms. Coulter, it seems clear to me that her points are, at least, worthy of consideration). One particularly strong point in her case is the comparison of the validity of the various confessions: those of the men convicted, and that of Reyes. Reyes has nothing to lose by confessing, and much to gain within his environment. In fact, The New York Daily News reports that law enforcement officials interviewed another inmate who "said Reyes had been threatened with violence if he didn't take sole responsibility for the jogger attack." This angle isn't even raised by the Times.

Furthermore, Coulter describes the many points at which the original confessions could have been thrown out of the case but weren't. In contrast, The Daily News quotes the prosecutor who led the original probe, Linda Fairstein, as suggesting that there has been no cross-examination of Reyes allowed, and Nancy Ryan, the new-investigation leader, is alleged to have blocked interviews with other inmates. According to Bert Arroyo, the case's lead detective, the DA's office has not contacted him or other "lead investigators" for their current investigation, which the Times calls a "sweeping reinvestigation."

As for the DNA evidence linking Reyes to the rape, according to the Daily News, yet another inmate has said that Reyes told him that he had come upon the scene after the convicted attackers had already beaten the jogger and raped her then. Why is his tale any less believable than Reyes's? All the new DNA evidence proves is that Reyes was there. If his story to the other inmate is true — that he was "riding high on angel dust and crack" when he came upon the beaten woman — it doesn't seem a stretch to suggest that his is the only biological evidence because he was too out of it to think to avoid leaving it.

Coulter also makes a good point regarding the hair-DNA evidence, which the Times says, "in particular made a compelling argument":

According to AP reports at the time, the most powerful testimony about the hairs found on Richardson's clothes came from a detective who boldly proclaimed: The hairs "could have" come from the jogger. On cross-examination, he admitted that "he could not determine that a hair definitely came from a specific individual." He also said "that hair could end up on someone's clothing by casual contact or from being airborne."

I have a hard time believing that this evidence was decisive for anybody on that jury, especially given other points cited by Coulter:

On the other hand, evidence tending to implicate Richardson included this:
* He led prosecutors to the scene of the crime.
* There were dirt and grass stains in the crotch of his undershorts.
* He confessed on videotape to being at the scene of the attack.
* He gave a detailed description of the attack.
* He admitted that the deep scratch wound on his cheek was inflicted by the jogger.

It may be that the five prisoners received false convictions. It may also be that they are guilty, but a blend of legal-office politics, prison politics, and media politics will combine to give them a get-out-of-jail-free card. But would giving multimillion-dollar "restitution" to five guys whom nobody, as far as I've been able to discern, seriously argues were not at all involved in the various attacks around the park that night be justice?

Mr. Reynolds has responded to this post as an update to his original. He offers some of that perspective that I admitted that he has over me: I have no knowledge of individual DAs or, generally, how difficult it is to get them to admit error. Trusting Morgenthau is certainly a valid consideration when addressing this case, but I still see some areas of question.

First, judging from the media coverage, it doesn't look as if Morgenthau risks derision by taking the position that he does — in fact, quite the opposite. Second, the new push is based on "new" evidence, so it can't really be said that he was in error; there was no "sixth rapist" before, nor the technology to match hair DNA. Which ties to the third point: if anybody is taking heat for this, it is the police; the usage of collected evidence (including the confessions) is not being questioned, but its procurement is.

Again, I have no experience to claim knowledge about the internal and external political pressure on Mr. Morgenthau. His is an elected position, but he's been in office for 27 years and just began a term this year. The issue of politics may not even be relevant where he is concerned with this case. However, if he does have more information that makes his current position more explicable, then I can't think of any reason that he hasn't released it. There is a fair bit of the "proof" available, and he has had to know that people would take note of the move.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 12:16 PM EST


Read the prosecution's recommendation to vacate:


John @ 12/05/2002 07:11 PM EST


John @ 12/05/2002 07:13 PM EST


Thanks for the link (but not the extra homework!). Is it possible that Reyes's version of events is true? Yes. Given time and motivation, I'd also want to research the original trial and some of the other evidence that has popped up in articles, such as that cited by Ann Coulter.

Still, I'm persuaded that the account that the Daily News reports from another inmate that Reyes came upon the woman already beaten is the most likely. The recommendation to vacate is very long, and I haven't been careful in my note-taking, but given my limited expertise and limited knowledge, I suggest the following.

He undeniably raped the jogger. That does not appear to be in question, so the issue is to determine whether he acted alone, as he states, or he came upon the jogger, as the other inmate states. In the ABCNews article linked above, Reyes admitted that he had known about the trial back in '89. Given that he admits having thought that he'd gotten away with a "perfect crime" (which would apply, I'd say, even if that crime were "merely" the additional rape, theft, and few blows), it seems likely that he followed the case with at least moderate interest. Therefore, it is not surprising that he would be able to describe the direction of her jogging and all of the events that he describes clearly up to the point of the actual rape.

That's when there are two problems with his confession. First, he describes remembering the jogger running away from him naked from the waste down, but the present report acknowledges that that's impossible. He also describes not remembering tying her shirt in a knot around her head. Given that these are among the few specific details amid much confusion, I wonder whether they are so easily dismissed. Add to the scenario that the prosecutor makes a big deal out of the knot being some sort of signature, which suggests some level of deliberate activity. Furthermore, the part of his story in which he runs into a cop whom he knew ought to be curious. I could see getting past a cop without suspicion after having raped a more-or-less unconscious woman, but after chasing her around and struggling with her? Striking her and dragging her to the ground? I find it likely that such activity would leave signs that would raise eyebrows on a policeman who has been summoned to a park to look for teenagers out "wilding."

Then there's the additional biological evidence. Essentially, most of the new tests were inconclusive, from hair to the blood on the rock. In fact, the jogger's original samples could not be found. Furthermore, additional semen was located for which Reyes could only confidently be stated to be one of 6 billion people whom it might match.

Beyond all of this, ultimately, the jury already did believe that only one attacker had ejaculated, with DNA that matched none of the suspects, before Reyes came into the picture. And multiple juries did find the cases plausible "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Justin Katz @ 12/05/2002 11:08 PM EST