NYC
05/17/2011 08:03 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2011

'Central Park Five' Jogger Rape Case: Compensation Proves Elusive For Wrongfully Accused

NEW YORK -- When police in New York are accused of misconduct, the city usually likes to settle quickly and quietly. New York City dished out $117 million to people who brought such claims in 2009.

But for the Central Park Five, the group of black and Latino teenagers who were accused of raping a jogger in 1989 and spent years in prison before having their convictions thrown out, compensation from police or prosecutors has proven elusive. Their civil rights lawsuits are still pending more than seven years after they filed them in 2003. Their lawsuits are still in the discovery phase and any trial is, at the very least, months away.

A new book out Tuesday, "The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding," explores just how the police, prosecutors and media got it all so wrong.

Author Sarah Burns devotes many pages to a painstaking reconstruction of how NYPD detectives broke down a group of scared, sleep-deprived kids into confessing. Much of the power of those confessions came from the fact that they were videotaped, but the suspects spent hours in interviews and interrogations before the actual taping.

"A jury looks at that and thinks this is a spontaneous confession, when in fact it's anything but spontaneous," Burns said in an interview with HuffPost.

With two decades' hindsight, both the flawed procedures used to interrogate the five and the contradictions inherent in their confession statements have become painfully evident. But even Burns is not surprised that many of the cops and junior prosecutors involved in the case refuse to accept court conclusions that vacated the convictions in 2002, citing DNA evidence that put another man at the scene of the crime.

"It's very difficult to imagine that you would ever confess to something you hadn't done," she said. "It's completely irrational."

New social science research conducted over the last two decades suggests that while false confessions may be irrational, they are not uncommon. Law professor Brandon L. Garrett found that 40 of the 250 cases he studied of people exonerated by DNA evidence involved a confession.

New York's state compensation law, however, stipulates that an individual can only sue the state if "he did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction." This statute was passed into law in 1984, well before DNA testing showed just how many people contribute to their own convictions because of youth, mental illness or police pressure.

New York's courts have, in many cases, interpreted the statute to mean that people who confessed are ineligible for compensation. A decision in March from the state's highest court left the law's interpretation still murky.

"I don't believe that the legislative intent initially was to block people who confessed or plead," Rebecca Brown, a policy advocate at the Innocence Project, told HuffPost. Brown thinks New York's legislature should make its intention clear. "The real poison pill is this bar, or this interpretation of the law to bar people who have confessed or plead," she said.

That state's wrongful conviction law provides a process that, while not exactly speedy, is at least relatively straightforward. But because of their now-recanted confessions, the Central Park Five would have a difficult time proving their cases eligible.

Even for people who do have clear standing to bring cases under the wrongful compensation statute, winning money is no slam dunk. Between 1984 and mid-2009, only 42 of 250 compensation claims resulted in awards or settlements.

New York law sets a fairly high bar for compensation: The person in question must prove with "clear and convincing" evidence that they were actually innocent.

"You have to prove a negative, you have to prove you didn't do something," criminal defense attorney Joel Rudin, who has won several such cases, told HuffPost. In effect, the compensation statute forces the exonerated to have their cases tried in court all over again -- only this time, with the burden of proof reversed.

Because of their confessions, the Central Park Five have taken a different legal tack than the one provided under the compensation statute. Almost all of them have chosen to concentrate instead on lawsuits against the police, prosecutors and the city, claiming their civil rights were violated.

New York City's lawyers have vowed not to settle the case, citing the trials the five received and the hundreds of millions of dollars they are demanding.

Money isn't the only obstacle for the wrongfully convicted. Both human nature and political concerns often prevent prosecutors and cops involved in cases from admitting they made mistakes.

Rudin, who has won several high-profile compensation cases, is currently working on the case of Jabbar Collins, who had his murder conviction overturned because of what a judge called "shameful" behavior by the Brooklyn DA's office, which withheld key evidence from the defense.

Admitting that Collins' conviction was wrongful "would be an admission that they took away 16 years of someone's life who was innocent," Rudin said.

That's a tough pill for any prosecutor to swallow. Instead, many have chosen to double down on their original belief that the wrongfully convicted was guilty, Rudin said. Some prosecutors may fear that conceding innocence could prove a political liability.

Rudin's client, Collins, said he is "disgusted" that the prosecutors who put him behind bars still work in Brooklyn, but he hopes his suit against them could change that.

"Part of the reason to bring these lawsuits is to expose misconduct that they have no interest in exposing themselves," Rudin said.

In the Central Park Five case, the question of prosecutorial misconduct is not clear-cut. The assistant district attorney who actively oversaw the prosecution maintains that the five were involved in the attack on the the jogger, as does the NYPD.

"I do think that there is some pressure being put on the city from the people who were involved in the case not to settle," Burns said.

And the Manhattan district attorney ultimately responsible the Central Park Five's convictions, Robert Morgenthau, has never apologized to the men, even though his office acknowledged that their convictions would not have happened with better DNA testing.

In high-profile lawsuits like the Central Park Five's, public opinion can be critical in deciding whether or not a lengthy trial or a quick settlement ends the litigation. And public opinion on the Central Park Five is still divided.

Just last month a "New York Post" editorial said the "five thugs" shouldn't get any money from the city -- and they never should have had their convictions vacated in the first place.

In her book, Burns goes into great detail on the racially charged history of words like "thugs." When she hears that word used to describe the Central Park Five today, she is dispirited.

"I think that's really unfortunate," she said. "It just sort of compounds the suffering that they've experienced."