Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana gathered at a showing of The Central Park Five documentary in 2012. (The Central Park Five/Facebook)
This article has been updated to relect a earlier correction.
Mayor Bill de Blasio came to office vowing that he would settle the Central Park Five case in the face of entrenched opposition by police and prosecutors who insisted there was probable cause to arrest and take to trial five teenagers for the rape and beating of jogger Patricia Meili in 1989.
De Blasio’s election broke a stalemate in the contentious 11-year-old litigation in the Southern District, enabling lawyers who were still far away from trial to reach a reported $40 million settlement between the city and the five men, all of whom served prison terms before another man confessed to the crime. The proposed payout to the plaintiffs must now be accepted by City Comptroller Scott Stringer before the parties appear in Southern District Judge Deborah Batts’ courtroom for final approval.
The Associated Press reported Friday that Stringer confirmed the settlement was “in the ballpark” of $40 million.
For the last 11 years, Law Department attorneys have been trying to defeat malicious prosecution claims for $50 million each by Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., Kharey Wise and Yousef Salaam, with the city arguing that the five made incriminating statements about the night of the attack that were given free of coercion, and that the five were prosecuted with no ill intent or racial animus.
On the other side were veteran civil rights lawyers who were frustrated by the city’s unwillingness to accept responsibility even after imprisoned murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes told police in January 2002 that he was the one who attacked Meili, and District Attorney Robert Morgenthau joined with defense attorneys to move for their convictions to be vacated.
Morgenthau’s decision angered many in the police department who felt there was a scapegoating of detectives who questioned the five after they were taken into custody for allegedly being part of groups of marauding teens in Central Park the same night as the Meili assault. The police opposed any effort to settle the cases (NYLJ, Nov. 23, 2012).
In January 2003, a month after Justice Charles Tejada granted the motions for vacatur, a report issued by a commission established by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the evidence “leads us to conclude that it is more likely than not that the defendants participated in an attack upon the jogger” separate from that of Reyes.
Michael Armstrong, now a partner at McLaughlin & Stern, who headed the commission established by Kelly, said Friday that he hopes the settlement will not obscure the fact that no one other than the plaintiffs’ counsel believed the police or the prosecutors acted improperly.
“I hope that any settlement makes it absolutely clear that there is no evidence at all that the police or the prosecutors used any improper means to extract confessions from the defendants,” Armstrong said. “Four out of the five defendants did not mention any such charges in pretrial motions seeking to suppress these confessions. Apparently they remembered police abuse when they realized that was it was profitable to do so.”
Once In re McCray, 03-cv-09685, landed in federal court, the Law Department dug in for a lengthy defense, arguing that, despite inconsistencies in the statements provided by the teens under questioning, all five placed themselves at the scene of the rape, so the decision to arrest and charge them was based on probable cause.
Jonathan Moore of Beldock Levine & Hoffman, who represents four of the Central Park Five, and other plaintiffs lawyers faulted the city for being unwilling to right a wrong and for taking a position that implied the five were rapists.
Ten years later, after dozens of depositions and discovery fights, endless battles over the immunity of police detectives and prosecutors and motions to dismiss, de Blasio ran for mayor vowing to resolve the matter if elected, saying in 2013, “As a city, we have a moral obligation to right this injustice.”
Attorney Nick Brustin of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, who has no connection with the Central Park Five case, said it took a change at the top and a new perspective to settle the case.
“We run into the problem all the time of police, administrators and prosecutors with tunnel vision and a complete inability to look objectively at the issue,” Brustin said. “From an outside perspective, responsible administrators came in and took a close look at a case where very bad things happened and they tried to fix it.”
As a racially-charged, bitterly-contested fight over policing in the city, the Central Park controversy is matched only by another civil rights case­—litigation over police stop-and-frisk policies and allegations the police violate the U.S. Constitution by stopping young black and Hispanic men in disproportionate numbers without reasonable suspicion they are engaged in criminal activity.
De Blasio also vowed to settle that case, Floyd v. City of New York, and reached a deal with plaintiffs lawyers earlier this year in which the city accepted a court-appointed monitor for three years. But police unions are fighting the settlement, saying that a judge’s opinions holding them liable damage their reputations and that a monitor would interfere with their ability to police the city.
The extended litigation over the Central Park case grew even more contentious in 2012 with the release of “The Central Park Five,” a movie by filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon that decidedly took the view the five men, then teenagers, were railroaded, coerced into confessions and then convicted in a racially-charged atmosphere of high-crime in New York City.
The film was criticized by many who believe the police acted appropriately in their investigation of the Central Park attack.
The city unsuccessfully sought to subpoena outtakes. The filmmakers were represented by John Siegal and Peter Shapiro of BakerHostetler in the successful effort to have Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis quash the subpoena—a decision affirmed by Batts (NYLJ, Sept. 25, 2013).
Andrew Celli of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady represented a group of interested documentary filmmakers who appeared amicus curiae in the dispute over the outtakes.
“A settlement this large, this dynamic, will have an impact,” Celli said Friday. “It will cause police and prosecutors to think a bit more carefully about the ramifications of [how they conduct] a particular investigation.”
Brustin said he hopes that will be the case in the future and that the Corporation Counsel’s Office works with the police department in the wake of a large settlement like this one “to make sure that, to the extent there are systemic problems, how can they be fixed?”
“They need to ask, how did this happen and how can we prevent this from happening again,” he said.
Moore declined comment Friday, as did David Kreizer of Fisher & Byrialson & Kreizer, the firm representing Kharey Wise. The Law Department also declined comment.
A spokesman for Stringer released a statement Friday saying the comptroller had received the proposed settlement between the city and the five men. “As with all proposed settlements, under our Charter-mandated authority, we will do our due diligence and provide feedback to ensure that any settlement is in the best interests of the city.”