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There comes a time in most of the trials I cover as a reporter when a slight chill brushes the back of my neck, and I hear an inner voice ask, “What if this defendant really is not guilty?” In a big case, like those concerning the Oklahoma City bombing, the siege at Waco, and the rape of the Central Park jogger, it’s a frightening moment. Frightening because we in the press corps know that convictions are virtually inevitable in such cases and, therefore, we also know that if the defense team’s denials are based in truth, a huge injustice is about to take place. The recent vacating of rape and assault convictions in the case of the Central Park jogger suggests that such an injustice may have needlessly cost each of five New York City men more than seven years of liberty (one served more than 12 years). I say the ruling “suggests” as much because, even after a fresh, exhaustive investigation into startling new evidence, it is still not entirely clear that the original defendants were wrongly convicted. Ten years ago I wrote a book about the trials. The book examined the trial strategy and tactics of a team of highly skilled, dedicated prosecutors and the opposing efforts of five defense attorneys of varying, and generally less, talent. It also analyzed the lengthy deliberations and negotiations of two juries, based on interviews with nine jurors from the first trial and seven from the second. As a journalist, I was supposed to provide an impartial and balanced analysis of the case. I resisted forming an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the defendants for as long as possible. After two years of reporting and writing, however, I believed I had learned more about what happened in the park — and understood more about what happened in court — than anybody else. Despite troubling contradictions in the evidence and persistent mysteries about certain players and events, I came to the conclusion that prosecutors had met the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The case was reopened early last year, when Matias Reyes, a man imprisoned for murder and rape in cases unrelated to the jogger’s, was proven by DNA analysis to have been the Central Park rapist. That somebody had raped the victim and escaped prosecution had never been in doubt, because semen found on her sock did not match that of any of the known suspects. The new problem Reyes posed for prosecutors was that he claimed to have acted alone, an assertion that was bolstered when a subsequent investigation found no significant link between him and the Central Park defendants. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau ultimately agreed to a defense motion to vacate the Central Park convictions on the grounds that the evidence proving Reyes’ guilt would probably have resulted in different verdicts had it been available at the 1990 trials. In addition to convictions for the rape, attempted murder and assault of the jogger, convictions for robbery, riot and the assaults of two male joggers were also dismissed. The media coverage and debate preceding the December ruling vacating the convictions sometimes suggested that contradictions among the confessions and inconsistencies in the prosecutor’s time line of events were as newly discovered as the DNA match to Reyes. In fact, all of those issues and others were hotly debated during the 1990 trials. At the time, however, the media were more interested in shocking audiences with gory descriptions of what was done to the jogger than in making thorough analyses of the evidence. The entire press corps, for example, failed to notice at the time that it was Yusef Salaam’s own lawyer who put into evidence a detective’s report claiming that Salaam had admitted striking the jogger twice with an iron pipe and fondling her breasts. That handwritten document, unsigned by the teen-ager, became known as Salaam’s “confession.” I called my chapter about Salaam’s defense “A Lawyer Self-Destructs.” Even in the tabloid-hyped, racially tense atmosphere of 1990s Manhattan, the convictions of five black and Latino teen-agers who confessed to the vicious rape of a white investment banker were not easily won. The jury in the first trial was out for ten days; in the second trial, jurors struggled with the case for 12 days. Many jurors had serious doubts about the credibility of the teen-agers’ videotaped and written confessions. For that skepticism, they deserve more credit than does the press corps, which paid scant attention to the many inconsistencies and contradictions that defense lawyers sought to exploit in their clients’ various versions of the rampage in the park. When the case was reopened last year, it quickly became clear that those holes in the original case were under intense scrutiny by prosecutors reviewing the convictions. The New York City Police Department responded with a lobbying effort to convince Morgenthau’s office to fight to uphold the convictions. While they failed in that campaign, perhaps police brass should count themselves lucky that they have so far come through this whole embarrassing episode free of official criticism. At suppression hearings, as well as at trial, one defendant claimed that he had been slapped around by a detective during one of his many interrogation sessions. Other defendants variously claimed to have been lied to, threatened with prosecution and promised the opportunity to turn state’s evidence or to be permitted to go home with their parents if they confessed to some involvement in the rape. In his ruling admitting the confessions into evidence, Justice Thomas Galligan found that either those claims were not credible or that such tactics were permissible under the law. Indeed, those are the tactics we see played out nightly on “NYPD Blue” and “Homicide: Life on the Street,” television dramas that succeed because the veteran detectives employed as consultants to the scriptwriters ensure that interrogations are portrayed with a high degree of realism. Those scenes have the unmistakable ring of truth precisely because they are so accurate. Such tactics are acceptable not only to the courts but to our society as well, until we discover that someone has been wrongly convicted. If all such methods were forbidden, however, many more criminals would get away with murder, not to mention legions of lesser crimes, daily. While the district attorney’s office has not concluded that the Central Park confessions were false, it has, for all intents and purposes, determined that they must now be considered unreliable as evidence of guilt. In light of that finding, the scariest thing about the case is that the confessions were not obtained by extraordinary means. Despite the arguments of defense counsel at trial, it was clear to me from both the testimony of detectives and my own interviews with several of them that they were following standard operating procedures during those interrogations. That well-intentioned detectives, following standard procedure, can elicit unreliable confessions from multiple defendants is far more alarming than the prospect of one or two bad cops deciding to frame somebody. In New York City, it is common practice for prosecutors to travel to police precincts and make videotaped confessions only after suspects have signed written confessions, which are typically summaries of their incriminating statements as compiled by a detective. With the exception of whatever notes may have been taken by detectives working the case, no record of the interrogation or the preceding investigation is available to prosecutors. We will never know whether the case against the Central Park defendants would have gone forward had there been videotapes of the dozens of hours of interrogations that were conducted before prosecutors became involved in the case. But we do know that provisions in the law that were designed to protect the rights of juveniles are insufficient. Detectives and prosecutors followed standard procedures, again, when they allowed parents of the Central Park defendants to be present during questioning, but in most cases the parents were not sufficiently astute to protect their children’s interests. One of the issues that troubled me during the trials was the impracticality of applying the Bruton rule, which is supposed to prevent the out-of-court statement of one defendant from being used against a co-defendant. Three suspects were tried together in the first Central Park trial and two suspects in the second trial. The judge had ordered that all of the confessions be edited to eliminate incriminating references to co-defendants. As a result, when one defendant named another in a videotaped confession, the latter’s name was deleted and replaced with an audible, high-pitched tone. But several jurors told me they simply assumed the missing names were those of the other suspects sitting at the defense table next to the teen-ager speaking on the tape. Inevitably in a case with five defendants, the jurors were mistaken in several instances, resulting in one defendant or another being unfairly prejudiced. The only certain safeguard would have been five trials, a length to which very few judges would have gone, especially given the objections raised by prosecutors to that prospect. Twelve years after the Central Park trials, with the benefit of hindsight and the certain guilt of a newly identified culprit, the district attorney has determined, in effect, that the prosecution was fraught with deficiencies. It would be an easy thing, now that we know of the guilt of Matias Reyes, to dismiss those issues with the argument that it was impossible to know of their existence in 1989. But Reyes murdered one woman and raped three others in Manhattan during the summer of the Central Park jogger case. He was arrested in August of that year and eventually pleaded guilty in all four cases for which he was charged. Yet no connection was made by police or prosecutors between the rapes he committed and that of the jogger. It’s true that four videotaped confessions were compelling evidence of gang rape, and that prosecutors with hard-earned reputations for integrity tried the case as they knew it at the time. It may also be true, as some detectives and prosecutors have recently argued, that the five teen-agers assaulted the jogger some time before Reyes happened upon the scene and raped her alone. Ten years ago, I wrote the following paragraph in the afterword of “Unequal Verdicts”: “In ivory towers on law school campuses across the country, wide-eyed students are taught that a trial is a search for the truth. Those who choose to practice in the criminal courts, however, will soon learn otherwise. They will learn that a trial is a contest of credibility, their own and that of their witnesses, with evidence, not truth, at its core. The winner of the contest is the lawyer who convinces a jury that his interpretation of the evidence makes more sense than that of his opponent. In many cases, what may or may not have actually happened at the crime scene, or in the interrogation room, will never objectively be known.” At the time, I worried that those sentences might come across as overly cynical. These days, I more often wonder whether I’ve remained skeptical enough. It seems that the more trials I witness, the harder it becomes to hear that nagging inner voice, the one that dares to ask, “What if this defendant really is not guilty?” Timothy Sullivan is the vice president of daytime programming for CourtTV and the author of “Unequal Verdicts: The Central Park Jogger Trials.” E-mail: [email protected].

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