Fooled By Stereotypes Of Superpredators by Salim Muwakkil
The "Central Park jogger" case conjures up images of a horrific crime that occurred in New York City on April 19, 1989, when a 28-year-old female investment banker was brutally assaulted and raped while jogging in the park.
Within hours police picked up five Harlem teenagers (ranging in age from 14 to 16) who later were charged with the crime.
There was no physical evidence linking teenagers--four African-Americans and one Puerto Rican--to the vicious assault, but they were convicted largely on the strength of taped confessions. All served at least seven years in prison, with one incarcerated for 13 years.
Those are the sordid details of the case. But the brutal crime became emblematic of a society that many were convinced was tumbling into criminal anarchy. Stoked by hysterical media reports that spun tales of feral black and Hispanic youth running amok through Central Park like "wolfpacks," wreaking havoc and "wilding," New Yorkers and the nation in general were out for blood.
The crime and lurid coverage provoked wealthy real estate developer Donald Trump to take out ads in four New York newspapers calling for the restoration of the death penalty in the state. His sentiments were widely shared and capital punishment was restored in New York a few years later.
The media frenzy surrounding the case also gave a powerful push to the growing trend to prosecute and punish juveniles as if they were adults. That trend remains strong.
In January 2002, however, a convicted serial rapist who reportedly had a religious conversion in prison confessed to the 1989 crime. The man, Matias Reyes, said he acted alone and a subsequent investigation of his claim linked him to the DNA found on the jogger. Reyes also confessed to committing another rape in the park two days earlier.
The jogger was in a coma for 12 days and had no memory of the attack when she awoke. No biological evidence from the five teens had ever been found.
Prosecutors used strands of blonde hair to further incriminate the youths, but, according to a police report leaked by New York Newsday, "all forensic evidence used at the trial ... to convict the five has now been determined to be useless."
The five young men, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise and Anton McCray, have always maintained they were coerced or tricked into lying in the confession statements.
They claimed that police officials told them they would be allowed to go home after being subjected to intense interrogation for up to 36 straight hours.
Even while the youths were imprisoned, "their persistence in claiming innocence, instead of conveying remorse for the assault, cost them their best change to reduce their prison terms," according to an Oct. 16 story in The New York Times.
Although the five men, now in their 20s and 30s, are free they must report every three months to register as sex offenders and, according to their attorneys, their lives have been devastated. What's more, the hardened attitudes and harsh legislation passed in reaction to their wrongful convictions cannot be put back into a box. But their cases are not unusual. In fact, Illinois Gov. George Ryan recently pardoned four Chicago men who had served from 12 to 15 years behind bars for a 1986 murder and rape they didn't commit. They, too, were cleared by DNA evidence.
Similar cases have surfaced in other parts of the country as well.
The common denominators in many of these wrongful convictions are the race of those accused and the race of the victim.
And that should be no surprise; stereotypical depictions of minority youth as crime-prone predators are as American as apple pie. That tendency was heightened considerably during the troubled decade of the 1980s, when crime rates were rising and racial anxieties were aggravated.
Some analysts trace those heightened anxieties back to the "superpredator" thesis of John Dilulio Jr., a former Princeton professor and former head of President Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Combining demographic projections with his notion of cultural deterioration, Dilulio forecast a "rising wave of superpredators" primed to prey on society.
He later co-authored a book titled "Body Count," with former drug czars William Bennett and John P. Walters, that warned of thickening ranks of juvenile sociopaths, "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters ..." who fear "neither the stigma of arrest, pains of imprisonment nor the pangs of conscience."
This hysterical tome simply ratified a growing consensus that crime was out of hand and the major culprits were increasingly younger denizens of America's dark ghettos.
The five Harlem youth who got caught in that hysteria have been released, but it still has America locked down.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times and a regular contributer to the Chicago Tribune. Mr. Muwakkil can be reached via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: This article was first published in the October 21, 2002 edition of the Chicago Tribune
Thursday, October 24, 2002