NEW YORK – With New York awash in murder and drugs, the 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger by what was said to be a gang of “wilding” teens was seen as evidence of a city sliding into lawlessness. A quarter-century later, it stands instead as a $40 million symbol of failure by the justice system.
The city has agreed to a settlement for that amount with the five men who were falsely convicted in the attack, all but closing the books on one of the most lurid cases in New York history.
Official confirmation of the deal came Friday when City Comptroller Scott Stringer said his office had received settlement papers with a figure “in the ballpark” of the $40 million that had been widely reported in the media.
The settlement still needs final approval from the comptroller and a federal judge. Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment.
The five black and Hispanic defendants were found guilty as teenagers in 1990 in the attack on a white woman – an investment banker – who had gone for a run in the park.
They served six to 13 years in prison before their convictions were thrown out in 2002 because of evidence that someone else, acting alone, committed the crime. The five sued police and prosecutors for $250 million.
Civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement that the tentative settlement signifies “a monumental victory” for the men and their families.
“It is also a victory for those in the community that stood with them from day one and believed in their innocence in this case,” Sharpton said. “As supporters, we were viciously attacked for standing with them, but we were on the right side of history.”
At the time, the crime was seen as a terrifying symbol of the city’s rampant lawlessness and its racial and class divide, and it gave rise to the term “wilding” for urban mayhem by marauding teenagers.
The victim, Trisha Meili, then 28, was found in the brush, more than 75 percent of her blood drained from her body and her skull smashed. She was in a coma for 12 days, suffered permanent damage and remembers nothing about the attack.
Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, both 14 at the time, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, 15, and Korey Wise, 16, were rounded up and arrested. After hours of interrogation, four of them gave confessions on video.
At the trials, their lawyers argued the confessions were coerced. At the time, DNA testing was not sophisticated enough to make or break the case.
In 2002, a re-examination of the case found that DNA on the victim’s sock pointed to Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist who confessed that he alone attacked the jogger.
Then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau stopped short of declaring the five innocent but withdrew all charges and did not seek a retrial. The statute of limitations for charging Reyes had run out; he is serving a life sentence for other crimes.
Andrew G. Celli, a lawyer who represented documentary filmmakers and others with an interest in the case, welcomed news of a settlement.
“A settlement this large, this dynamic, will have an impact,” he said. “It will cause police and prosecutors to think a bit more carefully about the ramifications of a particular investigation.”
The AP does not usually identify victims of sexual assault, but Meili went public as a motivational speaker and wrote a book. She did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
While the five men have been exonerated, some troubling questions persist: The two doctors who treated Meili said in recent interviews with The Wall Street Journal that some of her wounds were not consistent with Reyes’ account.
The doctors said that calls into question Reyes’ claim that he acted alone.