We have previously written about the heightened focus on wrongful convictions in the United States. Groups like the Innocence Project have been working tirelessly in recent years to help individuals clear their name and have their convictions overturned. At the same time, studying what went wrong in these cases will hopefully help prosecutors prevent wrongful convictions in the future.
Of course, that latter goal can only be achieved if prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system are willing to recognize and learn from their own mistakes. Unfortunately, this is not a guarantee.
One of the highest-profile examples of wrongful conviction is the case made against a group of young men dubbed “The Central Park Five.” In response to a brutal beating and rape committed in New York’s Central Park on an evening in 1989, five teenage boys were arrested. All were either African-American or Hispanic and between 14 and 16 years old when arrested.
The young men have always maintained their innocence and said that authorities had coerced them into making incriminating statements. Nonetheless, they were convicted and sent to prison.
Four of the men each spent approximately seven years behind bars and the fifth served 13 years before their convictions were vacated. Recently, New York City settled a lawsuit filed by the men for $41 million. The compensation essentially gives each man $1 million for each year spent wrongfully incarcerated.
The settlement is a long-overdue response to what many have criticized as a racially biased and botched investigation/prosecution. The crime occurred at a time when NYC was already suffering from an image problem.
But the language in the settlement explicitly states that the City of New York admits no wrongdoing whatsoever with regard to this case. While denial of liability is common in legal settlements, the language used here is far from standard. It essentially says that law enforcement, prosecutors and others “acted reasonably,” and that the mistakes leading to this wrongful conviction were not the result of misconduct of any kind.
The case of the Central Park Five has been notorious for the past quarter-century. It was even the subject of a 2012 documentary by American documentarian Ken Burns. The fact that NYC patently denies any wrongdoing is a bad sign. Those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.
Source: The New York Times, “Settlement Is Approved in Central Park Jogger Case, but New York Deflects Blame,” Benjamin Weiser, Sept. 5, 2014