Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump still believes the “Central Park Five,” a group of black and Hispanic men who were convicted but later exonerated in the 1989 rape of a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park, are guilty, he told CNN this week. The news comes more than a decade after the men were cleared by DNA evidence and a confession by the actual culprit about his role in the crime.
“They admitted they were guilty,” Trump told CNN’s Miguel Marquez. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Trump’s statement underscores a fundamental disregard for the criminal justice system. While the five individuals accused in the case did at one point confess to crimes related to the rape of then-28-year-old Trisha Meili ― though never actually admitting to rape ― they all later retracted their statements to police. The suspects, then juveniles, claimed that during hours-long interrogations, police lied, intimidated and ultimately coerced them into falsely confessing to crimes they never committed.
It’s now better understood that teens can be especially susceptible to police coercion during the interview process. False confessions continue to be one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.
Still, the teenagers were convicted largely on the backs of those confessions. There was a troubling lack of physical evidence connecting the boys to the crime, Meili did not have a memory of the horrific crime due to head injuries she sustained from the attack, and DNA evidence, still not commonly used at the time, was not introduced at their trial. No DNA evidence ever linked the five to the crime.
But then in 2002, another man, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, confessed to the rape, saying he acted alone. His DNA was later found to have matched forensic evidence found on Meili.
After serving a combined 41 years in prison, the five men were finally exonerated. And about 12 years later, New York City paid them a roughly $40 million settlement over the wrongful conviction.
The evidence clearly indicates that the Central Park Five weren’t guilty of this crime. They never were. One of the original suspects reacted with frustration to Trump’s latest statement on Twitter.
It’s not clear why Trump would decide to delve back into this painful episode, especially considering he played a distinct role in contributing to the case’s racial undertones and apparent clamor for mob justice at the time.
Just weeks after the attack and before the boys ever went to trial, Trump reportedly paid around $85,000 for full-page newspaper ads calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty.
Although he didn’t mention the Central Park Five case by name, Trump called out then-Mayor Ed Koch for asking the city to remove “hate and rancor” from its hearts.
“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” wrote Trump. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
The use of capital punishment, plagued by controversy and a shortage of drugs used for lethal injections, has been in decline for the last 20 years. It’s support has dwindled and there remains no evidence that the extreme form of punishment deters crime.
Trump continues to call large swaths of innocent people killers, rapists and criminals. He hasn’t let up on the Central Park Five either.
Days after the announcement of the settlement in the case in 2014, Trump criticized the decision, suggesting the initial guilty verdict was justified.
If this is the kind of “law and order” Trump wants to bring back to the criminal justice system, we’ll take a hard pass.
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