The Central Park jogger case is one of the most well-known media-covered assault events at the end of the twentieth century. It is mainly associated with five false confessions and convictions of black and Latino juvenile males. This case is a matter of prejudices and biases related to people of color. Even though Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves and guaranteed them the same freedoms as the native-born Americans, its practical implementation collides with the firm segregation principles.
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It is necessary to recall Barack Obama’s speech dedicated to Father’s Day in 2008, where he talks about missing black fathers. Apparently, those parents of color are not with their families because they are sentenced to prison. This can be compared with the laws of the Jim Crow era, when discrimination and segregation were common in society. Understanding of the Central Park jogger and its outcomes is possible through the analysis of legal procedures and interrogation, newspaper coverage, and documentary materials of that time.
Central Park is a symbol of New York, offering its residents a site for relaxing and detachment from urban zones. At the same time, this place is associated with unpleasant events, one of which took place on the late evening of April in 1989. A white jogger, Trisha Meili, was running in the appropriate zone of the park, but she was suddenly attacked, assaulted, raped, and beaten. There were no other people around who could witness such inadmissible events and report them to the police.
The body of the woman was harshly disfigured when she was found in the muddy forest area on the outskirts of the park. Obviously, a man that found Meili’s body was the first suspected, but five other males were later accused of this assault. The five suspects were four black and one Latino juveniles aged between fourteen and sixteen: Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, all coming from Harlem, the district of New York City. That night, a series of robberies, rapes, attacks, and homicides took place in the park, and these five men were involved in most of them. Police officers were convinced that those boys of color were guilty in the jogger case as well.
Several days later, four boys were videotaped, presenting their oral confessions in detail, even though the DNA samples of sperm did not correspond to those on Meili’s apparel. Kassin (2015) argues that research on police interrogations, confessions, and their consequences has inspired calls for reform to protect vulnerable suspect populations, including juveniles. In August 1990, the first trial took place, involving three out of five juveniles.
McCray, Salaam, and Santana were all convicted of assault, rape, and robbery in attacks on people in Central Park and, particularly, jogger. The same kind of accusations was reported to Richardson and Wise in December 1990. However, both lawsuits created an impression that the detectives and the prosecutors had acted improperly (Jacobs, 2018). Overall, each of the accused was imprisoned for between six and thirteen years.
The turning point in the Central Park jogger case was a confession of Matias Reyes in 2001. This man is known as a serial rapist and murderer already convicted of many other crimes and serving a life sentence. This confession was not influential for Reyes, but it became crucial for five boys of color that were wrongly accused in 1990. Although Reyes had been prosecuted for many crimes, “the detective handling him failed to see whether Reyes’ DNA matched that found on the victim” (Weiss, Watson, & Cynwyd, 2013, p. 471).
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However, the match of Reyes’ DNA with the samples was positive when tested in 2002, so it was him who had assaulted, beaten, and raped Trisha Meili. Jacobs (2018) reports that following this confession; officials have released 200,000 pages of documents, ninety-five depositions, and other records concerning the group known as the Central Park Five. All of them proved that there was no explicit evidence that the five boys of color were directly or indirectly involved in the Central Park jogger case. As a result, the convictions of all the five men were vacated, which means that from the legislative system perspective, they would never be accused and sentenced to jail.
The jogger case in Central Park can serve as an example, describing how police coercion can influence the outcomes. The theme of wrongly convicted juveniles aroused interest in society, but nobody doubted that those five juveniles were guilty simply because they were men of color. Therefore, Sarah Burns carried out a thorough investigation of the events regarding the jogger case, lawsuits, trials, and later confession of Reyes.
Based on it, she wrote a book and created a film together with her husband. Burns managed to represent the facts and analyze them from the legislative, psychological, and sociological perspectives. In the book, she provides an overview of racial violence in America with a major focus on the Jim Crow era malfeasances (Burns, 2011). She also implies that black people are sometimes accused only because of their skin color, while any white would get only some restrictions in similar cases.
Furthermore, the role of mass media means was immense in highlighting the events of 1989 in Central Park. Newspapers greatly influenced public perceptions of the five men who were transformed from the accused offenders to wrongfully convicted people. Kassin (2015) claims that false confessions were purposefully videotaped because of the police officers’ pressure as they often identify suspects for interrogation based exclusively on the first impression formed during the pre-interrogation interview. Apparently, such kind of judgment is usually biased because of ethnicity, race, gender, age, or nationality (Kassin, 2015). However, media means kept focusing on the Central Park jogger case, involving major political and social figures commenting on it.
Donald Trump was among those influential authorities who shaped public opinion in 1990. His opinion editorials were published on the first pages of major newspapers in New York. He wanted the criminals of every age involved in the Central Park jogger case to be afraid (Feeney & Otis, 2014). Laughland (2016) claims that Donald Trump received support basically from anyone, and he was not trying to sound racist – he aimed to be a proponent of law and order.
Trump has always been differentiated by his persistence and perseverance. Based on the Central Park jogger case, the critically asked for the death penalty to be reinstated in New York. Indeed, his desire was fulfilled in 1995 but was abolished in 2007 without a single execution carried out (Laughland, 2016). After the confession of Reyes was released, Donald Trump was still firmly convinced that all the five men were guilty regardless of being involved in the jogger case. As an influential public figure, Trump managed to influence the opinions of New York residents and strengthen social tensions in society.
When transferring from the legislative perspectives to social ones, it is obvious that racial biases and prejudices are still evident in modern American society. It is very difficult not to recognize and acknowledge “a defacto pattern in a nation with a recent history of state-sanctioned racial segregation” (Johnson, 2005, p. 134). Without analyzing official statistics of crimes, general observation reveals that blacks are more often accused of crimes and receive more severe punishments compared to similar cases concerning whites. The outcomes of the Central Park jogger case and other similar events depict that discrimination and segregation have transformed from explicit manifestations to latent forms.
The Central Park jogger case analysis has revealed that the legislative and judicial systems of the U.S. have some gaps. First of all, police officers may coerce suspects in order to finalize the particular case instead of searching for the guilty for years. The five boys of color were convicted of assaults, rapes, and robberies of park visitors and the female jogger, even though there were no explicit evidence, no witness testimony, and no DNA sample matches.
Only the confession of Reyes in 2002 revealed the truth so that convictions of the five men were vacated. Those events attracted much attention among publicity because of major newspaper coverage and claims of influential people, but quite a small number of U.S. citizens seemed to have any doubts about the Central Park Five group’s fault. The documentary book and film produced by Sarah Burns revealed the truth on the case supported by the facts obtained throughout a thorough investigation. Overall, the Central Park jogger case is not just a legal study; it is a matter of inequality and discrimination in American society.
Burns, S. (2011). The Central Park Five: The untold story behind one of New York City’s most infamous crimes. New York, NY: Vintage.
Feeney, M., & Otis, G. A. (2014). Central Park Five — Wrongfully convicted in 1989 rape — Settle with the city for $40 million. New York Daily News. Web.
Jacobs, S. (2018). Central Park Jogger ‘supports the city’s release of case records, hopes to clear police and DA of allegations they railroaded the accused teens. New York Daily News. Web.
Johnson, M. B. (2005). The Central Park jogger case – Police coercion and secrecy in interrogation. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 3(1), 131-143.
Kassin, S. M. (2015). The social psychology of false confessions. Social Issues and Policy Review, 9(1), 25-51.
Laughland, O. (2016). Donald Trump and the Central Park Five: The racially charged rise of a demagogue. The Guardian. Web.
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Weiss, K. J., Watson, C., & Cynwyd, C. (2013). Wrong place, wrong time: The Central Park Five. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 41(3), 470-473.