When Trisha Meili was found beaten beyond recognition in Central Park, it was assumed that she would die from her injuries.
She was discovered in a gully 90 metres from the jogging path she was dragged from, naked and tied up, covered in mud and her own blood. "She was beaten as badly as anybody I've ever seen beaten," said Joseph Walsh, the first policeman on the scene.
Her injuries were horrific. Meili had lost 80 per cent of her blood, and with a body temperature of only 29C, she was suffering hypothermia, reports news.com.au.
Her skull was fractured in 21 places and her left eye was dislodged from the socket. She was in severe haemorrhagic shock, lapsing in and out of a coma.
By the time she reached the hospital, she was unable to breathe on her own.
As reports of the vicious attack flooded the media, it was widely believed that she would never wake up. The most hopeful prognosis was she would permanently remain in a coma — but miraculously, twelve days later she awoke.
She was in a bad way: unable to talk, walk or remember anything about her life. But six months of intense therapy saw Meili undergo a remarkable recovery.
Eight months after the attack, she was back at her job in the corporate finance department at Solomon Brothers. It was a miracle.
She was the only eye witness to her attack, but Meili never recovered her memories from that evening — a fact the five teenagers who were convicted of the brutal attack wish was different.
If she could have remembered something, anything, the trajectories of their lives would have been markedly different.
A NIGHT OF TERROR
On the evening of April 19, 1989, Meili had been out for a late night jog, something she'd done regularly for two-and-a-half years without incidence. Her work schedule meant she often worked late in the evening, and had to start early, making daylight exercise an impossibility.
Still, she had concerns about jogging alone at night in the notoriously dangerous park, which is why she had a strict set of rules.
"I wouldn't start running, let's say, after 9:30 at night," she explained to Larry King. "I didn't go to the most northern part of the park, which is a bit more secluded than the area where I was first attacked.
"I didn't run around the reservoir in the park at night alone, because it's a narrow path and I thought, 'Eh, that's a little bit more dangerous.'"
She would also only jog in well-lit areas. That evening she had started her jog at 9pm, within the time frame set by her own rules.
"I also had the sense that, you know what? It's not going to happen to me," she explained. "Number one, it can't happen and if it does happen I'd be able to outrun the person."
Around the same time Meili started her jog, the first reports came into the Central Park Precinct of a group of around three dozen youths attacking joggers and bicyclists.
By 9:30pm, the complaints had increased in number, and the first set of patrol cars were dispatched to the park.
Half an hour later, at 10pm, John Loughlin was king hit in the back of the head with a pipe, one of many people attacked that evening.
At 10:15pm, police scooped up a number of young offenders, including 14-year-olds Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson. Within a short time, police had began interviewing the kids, quickly extracting a list of names of 33 suspects believed to be in the park that night. Among this list were 15-year-olds Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, and 16-year-old Korey Wise. They were brought in for questioning that same night, and these five were among those interrogated non-stop for two days. They were deprived of sleep, and subjected to lies, violence, and threats about what would happen to them if they didn't co-operate. Eventually, exhausted and scared, they all confessed to the attack on Trisha Meili. All would recant these confessions in the coming weeks.
But it was too late. These five children were charged with the attack, their names released to a baying media before a single charge had been laid, despite four of them being under 16.
They were quickly nicknamed 'The Central Park Five' and became the subjects of death threats to their houses, and — published in all four New York dailies — a public call for their executions.
Thirteen years later they would be exonerated of this crime, after a serial rapist and murderer confessed in great detail.
He acted alone. His DNA matched the only sample collected at the scene of the crime.
It was an open and shut case.
The Central Park Five were innocent.
TRIAL BY MEDIA
Three days after the attack, the New York Times were already reporting in a hyperbole manner. "Jogger's Attackers Terrorised at Least 9 in 2 Hours" read the headline.
"The youths who raped and savagely beat a young investment banker as she jogged in Central Park Wednesday night were part of a loosely organised gang of 32 schoolboys whose random, motiveless assaults terrorised at least eight other people over nearly two hours, senior police investigators said yesterday.
"Chief of Detectives Robert Colangelo, who said the attacks appeared unrelated to money, race, drugs or alcohol, said that some of the 20 youths brought in for questioning had told investigators that the crime spree was the product of a pastime called wilding."
Such irresponsible reporting completely removed the presumption of innocence, a trend in how the media framed this case. When researching her Netflix miniseries When They See Us, about the Central Park Five, writer and director Ava DuVernay found a study that showed that 89 per cent of the articles written by New York papers at the time of the case, failed to use the word 'alleged.' Due to the confessions, guilt was automatically assumed.
Although Colangelo claimed race wasn't a motivating factor in the attack, it certainly was in the media's take on the attack: it didn't go unnoticed that the accused were four African-American teenagers and one Hispanic. "The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round up a bunch of black youths," bemoaned Reverend Calvin O. Butts in a New York Times report.
Mayor Ed Koch fuelled the flames, dubbing it "the crime of the century" — a sweeping hundred-year span that had seen the horrors of Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy — plus countless other atrocities, including the Holocaust. Which is not to downplay the horrific nature of the crime, only to point out how emphatically the public were baying for blood.
The case was emblematic of an era in New York City where homicide rates were at their peak, and residents were too scared to leave their homes after dark. 1989 had seen 1905 murders in the city, the first of which occurred just 41 minutes after the ball dropped in Times Square to celebrate the new year. It was the worst year on record.
The following year saw this towering figure surpassed further, with the city experiencing a shocking 2245 killings. For context, there were 290 murders in New York in 2017, the lowest figure since 1944.
These were unsafe times, and the random brutality of the attack on the Central Park Jogger coupled with her anonymity in the media at the time put New Yorkers on edge.
In a 1991 essay about the Central Park Jogger, Joan Didion wrote of how a public debate surrounding Meili's decision to go jogging alone in the park at night played out on the New York Times opinion pages; some dubbed it foolhardy, while another argued, "when people run is a function of their lifestyle". A Democratic candidate wrote an op-ed piece, declaring, "that park belongs to us and this time nobody is going to take it from us".
TRUMP CALLS FOR DEATH
Donald Trump, then a real estate tycoon who had recently shot to prominence in the city due to his ghostwritten book The Art Of The Deal, paid $85,000 to run full-page ads in New York's four daily papers: The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post, and New York Newsday. The same inflammatory 600-word diatribe, running May 1, 1989, across all four papers, was titled 'Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police' and while it didn't refer to the incident specifically, it referred to "roving bands of wild criminals" and called for the "criminals of every age" to be put to death. "I want to hate these muggers and murderers,'' Trump wrote. "They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.''
Rallying against a largely misunderstood quote from Mayor Koch that "hate and rancour should be removed from our hearts", Trump called for zero policy sentencing.
"How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalisation of its citizens by crazed misfits?" the letter asks. "Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!"
This early example of Trump's hate speech would have far reaching ramifications. Michael W. Warren, who defended one of the accused, claims the full-page ads "poisoned the minds of many people who lived in New York City and who, rightfully, had a natural affinity for the victim," arguing the wide dissemination of the message impacted the impartiality of the jurors.
HOW DO FALSE CONFESSIONS OCCUR?
To understand how such a miscarriage of justice could occur, one only needs to look at the statistics regarding false confessions in America. In 1989, the idea of false confessions was a relatively unstudied one, and so when the Central Park Five admitted to the brutal attack, it was assumed they had done it. After all, what innocent person would confess to a crime they didn't commit? Now, we know better.
When DNA evidence is used to overturn a conviction, more than a quarter of the cases originally involved some form of false confession. Between 1989 and 2017, 12 per cent of wrongful convictions that were later overturned involved someone giving a false confession. 38 per cent of these were given by children under the age of 18, and a shocking 70 per cent of them had a reported mental illness or intellectual disability.
The brutal interrogation techniques used by police, the lack of options presented to the accused, and the feeling that such a confession is the only way out of the room all add to these towering figures. Police are allowed to lie in order to elicit a confession.
The most recent high-profile example of the above was shown in 2015's Making A Murderer docu-series, where Brendan Dassey — at the time of his interrogation, a sixteen-year-old child with a learning disability — was steered towards a confession by officers.
He was interviewed three times within a 24-hour time frame without the presence of an adult, a parent or a lawyer. The video footage of this systematic breaking down of Dassey makes for heartbreaking viewing, as he bumbles his way through a coached confession, of a crime he had no knowledge of. Through this confession alone, he was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, rape and mutilation of a corpse, despite the confession being called "clearly involuntary in a constitutional sense" by a US magistrate judge. This judge's finding was overturned, and Dassey is currently serving a life sentence.
Like Dassey, the Central Park Five were questioned for days on end. In the case of 15-year-old Salaam — who falsely told police he was 16 in order to keep his parents from needing to be in the room while being questioned — much of the interrogation was later discovered to have been undertaken illegally. Despite this, Salaam's answers were admitted into testimony.
Hours before Meili's bludgeoned body had been found, one of the kids the police had rounded up gave a pre-emptive denial in the police car, claiming he "didn't do the murder."
After almost two days of interrogation, police extracted confessions from four of the five; only Salaam refused to sign a confession, although he made a verbal admission that he was present in the park that night, after a detective lied and told him his fingerprints had been lifted from the victim's clothing. None of the five admitted to raping Meili, only claiming to be accomplices.
Although four of them signed confessions, and made video admissions, all had recanted within the following weeks, claiming police coercion. The only videotapes that exist of the interrogations are the straight confessions; the days of mind games that led to these on-camera statements were not taped. Sleep deprivation played a large part in their eventual confessions, as did fear and violence.
"I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room," Salaam recalled. "They would come and look at me and say: 'You realise you're next'. The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out."
The five statements tell five completely conflicting stories, with differences in every aspect of the crime.
Taken in isolated snippets, the confessions are horrifying, and those in the courtroom had no reason to believe they weren't true. "We charged her. We got her on the ground. Everybody started hitting her and stuff. She was on the ground. Everybody stompin' and everything."
"Raymond had her arms, and Steve had her legs. He spread it out. And Antron got on top, took her panties off."
"He was smackin' her, he was sayin', 'Shut up, bitch!' Just smackin' her. This is my first rape."
It doesn't matter which child said which of the above statements. They are vivid and horrific, but according to a detailed 58-page document presented in order to vacate the indictment, none of these claims are in keeping with what happened on that night.
They are fabricated.
District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, who recommended the convictions be overturned, claimed there were major differences in "who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place.
"In many other respects the defendants' statements were not corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence. And some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact."
The five pleaded not guilty, but their confessions loomed large in the courtroom, despite there being no eye witnesses in the crowded park, and no DNA evidence linking any of them to the crime.
Two separate trials found all five guilty of various aspects of the crime.
Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Raymond Santana were acquitted of attempted murder, but convicted of rape, assault, robbery, and riot.
Kevin Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, assault, and robbery, while Korey Wise — the only one to be tried as an adult — was convicted of sexual abuse, assault, and riot.
INJUSTICE FOR ALL
In 2002, Matias Reyes, a violent serial rapist and convicted murderer, admitted to committing the attack in Central Park that night. He went into great detail regarding the crime, and claimed to have acted alone. His DNA matched the only sample taken from the scene, and the way in which Meili's body was tied with a t-shirt matched other crimes he was convicted for. The statute of limitations had long passed, meaning that Reyes could not be charged with the crime. At any rate, he is already serving a life sentence for another murder.
By this point, the Central Park Five had each spent between six and 13 years in prison for the crime.
Morgenthau made the above recommendation to overturn the convictions in 2002, and they were freed.
The following year, Richardson, Santana and McCray filed a wrongful conviction suit against New York City, claiming $250 million in damages for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. The city refused to settle for over a decade, stalling on a settlement, as they believed that, despite the convictions being overturned, they would win the case.
After being elected in 2014, Mayor De Blasio agreed to a $41 million settlement.
It's less than 20 per cent of what they had been seeking, and so they are currently suing the State for an additional $52 million.
Although they settled, the city of New York did not admit to any wrongdoing in the prosecution and conviction of the Central Park Five.
Also claiming no wrongdoing is Donald Trump, who placed the incendiary ads many believe helped steer public sentiment against the Five.
After the settlement was announced, he wrote an opinion piece for The New York Daily News, titled 'Central Park Five settlement is a disgrace.'
In the piece he quotes an unnamed detective "close to the case" and says he told Trump this was "the heist of the century", unwittingly echoing Mayor Koch's hyperbolic "crime of the century" claim 25 years prior.
"Settling doesn't mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels", Trump writes, before imploring people to "speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels."
"What about the other people who were brutalised that night, in addition to the jogger?" he asks. "The recipients must be laughing out loud at the stupidity of the city."
Since then, he has repeatedly reiterated the guilty verdict of the men, even though their convictions were vacated. Just this week, he alluded to the case again.
"Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected," he tweeted. "In particular, African-Americans will not be able to vote for you. I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform, which had tremendous support, & helped fix the bad 1994 Bill!"
The film's director, Ava DuVernay, was quick to fire back: "The story people know is the lie that you told them. Your violent rhetoric fed tensions that led to the bill you pretend to distant yourself from. But you can't hide from what you did to The Central Park Five. They were innocent. And they will have the last word."