Central Park Jogger Rape Trials: 1990

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Central Park Jogger Rape Trials: 1990

Defendants: First trial: Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr.; second trial: Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise
Crimes Charged: First trial: Second-degree attempted murder, rape, sodomy, first and second-degree assault, robbery, riot; second trial: all of the above, plus sexual abuse
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Robert Burns, Michael Joseph, Peter Rivera; second trial: Howard Diller and Colin Moore
Chief Prosecutors: Arthur Clements and Elizabeth Lederer
Judge: Thomas B. Galligan
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: June 13-August 18, 1990; October 22-December 11, 1990
Verdicts: First trial: all acquitted of attempted murder, sodomy, and one of five counts of assault, but guilty of all other charges; second trial: Richardson guilty of all charges, Wise guilty of sexual abuse, assault, and riot
Sentences: First trial: 5-15 years imprisonment; second trial: 5-10 years imprisonment for Richardson, 5-15 years imprisonment for Wise

SIGNIFICANCE: The violent assault and rape of the woman known as "the Central Park Jogger" resulted in two tense and widely publicized trials that many New Yorkers felt were emblematic of the crime and racial problems characterizing the era.

More than 3,000 rapes were reported in New York City in 1989, but none aroused more fear and anger than an attack on a young woman who became known simply as "the Central Park jogger." The facts sometimes disappeared in chaotic arguments outside the courtsand in the spectators' seatsover the racial politics of dispensing justice in America. Yet most of the trial itself was fought over one point that horrified New Yorkers on both sides of the case: the fact that nearly all of the suspects were legally children.

On the spring evening of April 19, 1989, a loosely knit gang of about 30 adolescents roamed the northern acres of Central Park, terrorizing everyone they encountered. Police grabbed several suspects, including one who blurted, "I know who did the murder!" The confession made little sense until several hours later, when two passers-by heard moans coming from the darkness. A naked woman was discovered lying in the woods. She had been bound, raped, and beaten so severely that doctors expected her to die.

The victim was a white 28-year-old investment banker who enjoyed jogging in the park at the end of long days at a Wall Street firm. The suspects were all black or Hispanic. All but one were 14 or 15 years of age. None had an arrest record, but outrage and sadness ran through the city with reports of the young suspects' apparent indifference to human life. It was just a "wilding," one explained, a night of terror for the sake of fun.

Several suspects were released for lack of evidence or pleaded guilty to earlier assaults in the park. The rape victim remained unidentified by most of the press, who simply called her "the Central Park jogger." Despite their youth, six suspects indicted for the attack were publicly identified in the press. The indicted minors were to be tried as adults, but sentenced as juveniles if found guilty.

Confessions Prove Crucial

To abide by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1965 Aranda rule, which forbids testimony in which one codefendant implicates another, three trials were planned to separate youths who had implicated each other in videotaped or written confessions. These incriminating statements quickly defined the case for the defense. After unsuccessfully trying to bar the confessions for nearly a year, defense attorneys continued to challenge their legal and ethical legitimacy throughout the trials.

When defendants Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, Jr., came to trial in June 1990, they faced prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, who began by methodically reconstructing the night of violence. Seven victims of earlier harassment, robberies, and beatings in the park testified, although none implicated the three defendants. Doctors who treated the jogger testified that she had lost 75 percent of her blood by the time she was discovered. Her skull had been hammered so violently that the normally wrinkled surface of her brain had been beaten flat. Yet lack of physical evidence remained the weakest part of the prosecution's case. Blood and semen tests of the jogger were inconclusive.

In spite of the seriousness of her injuries, the scarred victim had recovered enough strength to appear in court. She testified briefly about the lingering aftereffects of the beating, but she could remember nothing about the assault itself.

The atmosphere changed when video monitors appeared in the courtroom. Jurors watched a half-hour videotape in which the prosecutor read McCray his Miranda rights as his parents looked on. On the tape, McCray then described how he and the gang had "charged" the jogger and beaten her to the ground. Someone, he said, hit her with a length of pipe before the gang took turns raping her. McCray admitted dropping his pants and climbing on top of the jogger but denied raping her. "I didn't do nothing to her," he said.

In his signed and videotaped confessions, Santana admitted assaulting other joggers in the park and implicated two youths who were scheduled to be tried later for rape. He confessed that he had held the jogger while Kevin Richardson raped her and Steven Lopez hit her in the head with a brick to stop her screams.

While police denied intimidating the suspects or promising them anything in return for the crucial confessions, detective Thomas McKenna testified that he had tricked a written confession out of Salaam, who denied even being in the park. When the detective falsely told Salaam that his fingerprints were found on the jogger's synthetic running tights, Salaam changed his story.

"Yes, I was there but I didn't rape her," Salaam said.

"How could you possibly do something like this?" the detective asked.

"It was just something to do," Salaam replied. "It was fun." Salaam admitted hitting the jogger twice with a metal pipe and grabbing her breasts, but he said that four others raped the woman, including Richardson and Wise.

McKenna said that Salaam's statement ended when his mother arrived and told police that her son was only 15. Minors were entitled to have a parent or guardian present during questioning, but when police took Salaam into custody, he claimed he was 16 and produced a transit authority pass to prove it. Defense witnesses claimed that the police knew Salaam was a minor and interrogated him anyway. Judge Thomas Galligan allowed the prosecution to introduce Salaam's unsigned statement and instructed jurors to decide for themselves if it was obtained fairly.

Defense Unwittingly Helps Prosecution

Without any physical evidence, the unsigned confession represented all of the prosecution's case against Salaam until his lawyer made a series of strategic blunders. When attorney Robert Burns asked McKenna why he believed the confession was true, the detective replied that he knew none of the particulars of the attack until Salaam revealed details which later turned out to be true. Burns also allowed the detective to mention that an unindicted witness placed Salaam in the park on the night of the attack.

McCray's and Santana's lawyers objected vehemently when Burns decided to put his client on the stand. Salaam denied taking part in the attack and testified that he told police he was only 15 when they questioned him. Under cross-examination, however, his confused explanation for being in the park dissolved into bickering with the prosecutor.

The defense claimed that the entire prosecution case rested on confessions coerced with lies and threats. The prosecution was accused of playing to the jury's emotions by unnecessarily putting the victim on the stand. Burns also suggested that the jogger had freely engaged in sex with an unnamed person before embarking on her run and that no rape had occurred. After 10 days of turbulent deliberations, however, the jury found the defendants guilty.

Details of the confessions had been leaked almost from the moment they were given, producing considerable press commentary that presumed the youths guilty. This bias and the absence of forensic evidence in the trial prompted some black New Yorkers to be suspicious of the verdict. A few activists, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, observed and criticized the trial, ignoring the multiracial jury's insistence that the youths were convicted by their own admissions.

When Kharey Wise and Kevin Richardson came to trial two months later, their supporters rained racial insults on prosecutors arriving at the courthouse. Richardson's attorney, Howard Diller, threatened to ask for a mistrial when Wise's lawyer announced publicly that he would cross-examine the jogger, a move the defense in the first trial had avoided for fear of alienating the jury. Richardson's family responded by trying to fire Diller for not being aggressive enough.

The tense courtroom erupted almost immediately. "That woman, she's lying!" Wise sobbed during prosecutor Lederer's opening argument. "I can't take it anymore!"

Wise's lawyer, Colin Moore, kept his promise to cross-examine the jogger vigorously. He inferred that she had been seeing more than one man and that her boyfriend had attacked her in a jealous fury. Moore's suggestive questions were buried in a hail of sustained objections.

Surprise Witness Surfaces

A subpoena forced one of Wise's friends to testify against her will as a surprise witness for the prosecution. Melody Jackson tearfully recalled Wise telephoning her from the Riker's Island detention center three months after his arrest. He denied raping the jogger, but he said that he had fondled her and helped hold her legs down.

The prosecution introduced two videotaped confessions featuring Wise. In the first, he admitted only that he had watched the rape. The second was more vivid. "It was my first rape," he said. He described how he had hit the jogger repeatedly with a rock. He recalled Salaam laughing while Santana and Lopez raped the victim. Wise claimed that he talked Lopez out of killing the woman. He also accused Richardson of rape, but his references to his codefendant were removed from the tape shown in court.

Wise's mother testified that her son had returned home at approximately the time he was accused of taking part in the rape. When the prosecutor asked if her son had not returned half an hour later, Mrs. Wise refused to cooperate and began screaming at Lederer. The judge ordered Wise's mother to be ejected from the court and told the jury to disregard her testimony.

Wise's own temper flared when he was asked to explain his admissions to police. He stalked off the stand and briefly refused to answer any questions. When he returned, his lawyer asked why he had confessed.

"The detectives told me to put myself in it," Wise replied. "They promised I could go home if I did."

Second Jury Issues Surprise

The verdict was a surprise to both sides. Jurors believed that Wise had been pressured into making the second videotape and convicted him only of sexual abuse, assault, and riot. Richardson, who had confessed to being present during the rape but denied taking part, was found guilty on all counts. The jury decided that physical evidence, including semen in Richardson's underwear and a strand of the victim's pubic hair found on his shirt, was more damning than any of the videotaped confessions. The absence of identical verdicts also disregarded the judge's instructions concerning the concept of "acting in concert," which holds that those who contribute to a major crime are liable to prosecution for its most serious aspects, even if they participate to a lesser degree.

Richardson's family shouted angry insults at prosecutors and the judge, accusing them of racism. " you'll pay for this," Wise spat at Lederer as he was led away amid the uproar.

Richardson received the maximum sentence for minors. Wise, the only defendant who was not a minor when he was arrested, was sentenced as an adult to slightly less than half of the maximum sentence.

Ironically, the suspect accused by the convicted youths of raping and beating the jogger most violently never stood trial. Only Steven Lopez had not given police an incriminating statement. Prosecutors prepared to try him for rape anyway, but the accusations of his codefendants were inadmissible and other witnesses ultimately refused to testify.

A plea bargain allowed Lopez to admit his part in the earlier muggings and plead guilty to a charge of robbery. In sentencing Lopez to 1V/z-41/z years imprisonment for his part in the "sadistic rampage" in Central Park, Judge Galligan called the conviction "the final chapter of a cowardly attack that will continue to live in the hearts of New Yorkers."

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Didion, Joan. "New York: Sentimental Journeys." New, York Review, of Books (January 17, 1991): 45-56.

Glaberson, William. "Jogger Case Defense: Scattershot Approach." New, York Times (July 13, 1990): Bl, B3.

Stone, Michael. "What Really Happened In Central Park." New, York (August 14, 1989): 30-43.

Sullivan, Ronald. "Confessions Lawyers Couldn't Undo." New, York Times (August 20, 1990): B4.

Turque, Bill and Anne Underwood. "Judgment For the Wilders." Newsweek (August 27, 1990): 39.

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Central Park Jogger Rape Trials: 1990

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Central Park Jogger Rape Trials: 1990