On the night of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman, later identified as Trisha Meili, was jogging in Central Park when she was attacked, and then brutally raped, sodomized, beaten, and stabbed five times.
Meili, who at the time of the attack was a vice president of the Wall Street investment bank Salomon Brothers, “lost 80 percent of her blood during an attack and rape so brutal that doctors did not expect her to live more than a few hours,” according to the Florida Times-Union.
Her injuries left her in a coma for 12 days. One eye had come out of its socket, and Meili suffered massive brain damage. But despite being in such bad shape that she was even given last rites, Meili survived.
Five juvenile males, whom the media would soon name the “Central Park Five,” were arrested for attacking and raping Meili. The five suspects were Korey Wise, 16; Antron McCray, 15; Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, both 14; and 15-year-old Yusef Salaam. Four were black, and one was of Hispanic descent.
They were tried for assault, robbery, riot, rape, sexual abuse, and attempted murder. After being convicted of most charges by juries in two separate trials in 1990, the five received sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years, and spent between 6 and 13 years in prison.
But in 2002, a man named Matthias Reyes, who had been convicted of a string of crimes including brutal rapes, came forward and said that he had been the actual attacker. At the time of the attack, Reyes had been living in his van and working at an East Harlem bodega on Third Avenue and 102nd Street.
Reyes supposedly was moved to confess because he “found religion,” but many observers believed that his true motive was a transfer and better conditions in prison.
Traces of Reyes’ semen were found on Meili’s sock from the night of the attack, and this resulted in the charges being dropped against the Central Park Five due to a lack of DNA evidence connecting them to the crime. The five defendants’ convictions were vacated by the New York Supreme Court on December 19, 2002.
The Central Park Five sued the city of New York, and ended up winning $41 million in a settlement in 2014.
But were they truly exonerated? Experts are divided. Some blamed racism for the convictions. Others pointed the finger at the media circus and hysteria surrounding the events of that night.
The 2012 Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five presented analysis to suggest that police should have connected Reyes to the attack at the time it happened rather than focusing on the five teens.
In videotaped confessions, the suspects described details of the assault. District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau’s office wrote:
“A comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies. The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime — who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place.”
The suspects later claimed that the confessions were coerced, but Michael Armstrong, who served on a panel re-investigating the Central Park jogger case, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that there is no evidence of this claim. Recently, the five men, now in their forties, are pushing for legislature that would require videotaping of all questioning of suspects by police, for the entirety of the time a suspect is in custody. In the Central Park Five case, only the boys’ confessions were recorded, but the 24 – 36 hours of questioning, during which time no food or water was provided, were not. Many feel that the confessions were obtained under duress, and that the authorities fed information to the boys.
There is one theory that the Central Park Five did actually attack Meili, but then afterward Reyes proceeded to rape her.
Back in 1989, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers against the Central Park Five and calling for the reinstitution of the death penalty in New York state. During his presidential campaign, Trump expressed his opinion that the convictions should never have been vacated.
In response to Trump’s widely proclaimed views on the case, Salaam said, “He believed (the prosecutors) had so much evidence in the case, when they didn’t have any evidence. Heroes are ones who are able to say, ‘I’m sorry, I rushed to judgment.’ (Trump) hasn’t offered that.”
In April 2003, Meili confirmed her identity to the media and published a memoir entitled I Am the Central Park Jogger. She revealed that she still suffers from after effects of the attack, including memory loss. Meili, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, now gives motivational speeches in which she shares her story of survival with others.
Main photo: Central Park [Ken Burns: The Central Park Five / YouTube (screenshot)]