One spring night, twenty years ago two tragedies occurred in Central Park. Trisha Meili, a white 28-year-old woman out for an evening jog, was raped, brutally beaten and left for dead. And five African American and Latino youths (aged 14 to 16) were picked up by the police, arrested and, later, wrongfully convicted for a crime they did not commit.
Most New Yorkers remember Meili, who was known for 14 years as the Central Park Jogger. She was, the media said, young, pretty, and successful. Her promising future had been cut short. Our hearts went out to her. When Meili's book, I Am The Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility, came out in 2003 she was interviewed by CNN's Larry King; the media celebrated her resilience and her new direction in life. Meili had quit her job on Wall Street to devote herself to helping other crime victims recover. She has since become, her web site says, "one of the most sought out inspirational speakers on the lecture circuit." She has been showered with accolades and awards. Recently, the 20th commemoration of the attack, has prompted renewed attention. Next Sunday, June 28th, the five-mile "Hope and Possibility" run, inspired by Meili, and organized to help people with disabilities, will be held in Central Park.
The stories of the young teenagers convicted of raping Meili have been all but forgotten. They spent between 7 and 13 years in jail, three of them repeatedly being denied parole because they insisted on their innocence. When released, they were registered as sexual offenders. In 2002, they were exonerated when Matias Reyes, the real rapist (his DNA matched evidence found on the victim) confessed to the crime. Reyes, a brutal, convicted serial rapist insisted that he committed the crime alone. Nevertheless the lawsuit instigated against the city for wrongful conviction by the former defendants has lingered in the courts for six years. Why? Because many people still think they're guilty. Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise, have never been given a chance to recover.
At the time of the trial they were vilified by the media, which depicted them as inchoate, predatory animals. It didn't matter that there was no physical evidence - not a drop of blood or a speck of mud -- linking them to the bludgeoned rape victim. Four of the defendants had confessed. That their confessions were wildly inconsistent and inaccurate didn't sway the court. They were out there in the park doing bad things (as if it were pointless differentiating shoplifting from holding a gun to a cashiers head and shooting). "Lock them up!" the media ranted. "Execute them!" people demanded. Donald Trump took out full-page newspaper ads advocating reinstatement of the death penalty.
The jogger case has personal resonance for me. As a child, I was mugged in the park several times and, on one occasion, almost gang-raped at knifepoint near the spot were the Meili was found unconscious (in my case a mounted policeman arrived in the nick of time).
That was in full daylight in the 1970s, a time when racial mistrust and rancor ruled. The city was broke and Central Park was a kind of derelict carnival ground. Hippies, drug dealers, street musicians as well as gangs of juvenile delinquents roamed the thread-bare lawns. Private school students, like myself, were regimented into carefully guarded lines when we entered the park for afternoon sports. I attended a Catholic school near the Guggenheim Museum. We wore blue blazers, gray flannels and loafers. After school we were easy targets. But people of every race and background were victims. Hundreds of robberies, physical assaults and lesser numbers of more violent crimes occurred every year in Central Park. It was a dangerous place and remained so in 1989 when crack was taking over the city and Meili was ambushed.
The jogger case was a turning point. In 1990, David N. Dinkins became the first African American mayor of the city, promising racial reconciliation. Mayor Rudy Giuliani's rule of law and order followed. Flusher economic times supported a vital, growing minority middle class. The park was spruced up. Beds of flowers were planted. The tall chain link fence that surrounded the reservoir came down. And so did the crime rate. According to police statistics, violent crime in the park, steadily diminishing since Dinkin's time as mayor, has this year, so far, hit zero. Not a single robbery or assault. These days, in good weather, scores of young men and women jog after work in the park until 10 o'clock at night. It's only later, approaching midnight, when there are few, if any, people around that we pedestrians walking our dogs, become wary. Unexpectedly, the old memories, the fears and suspicions return in a flash.
Perhaps there is good reason to be cautious, The economy is once again in trouble. The city is in debt and unemployment is on the rise. The past does not seem quite as far away as it once did, our hard fought for civility appears to be more fragile.
It's something to remember next Sunday when the participants in Meili's Achilles Track Club race event for the disabled will be among the tens of thousands of people of every race and nationality that fill the park's paths, lawns and sports fields on the weekends. Symbolically, Central Park represents our democracy's great potential. It's a place where we all own a piece of Arcady. Let's applaud Meili's remarkable and brave recovery, and the determined achievements of those with disabilities, but we should also remember the futures that were robbed from these five young men. Isn't it time the city gave them and their families - some have children of their own now -- a chance to recover their future, their right to hope and possibility?
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