Gotham Gazette

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False Confessions: NYC Still Struggles in Aftermath of Central Park Five


[This story is part of a series focusing on false confessions and filming interrogations published by Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Read other stories in the series here.]

A 14-year-old Raymond Santana sat slumped in a chair, his arms crossed.

Santana sat across the table from then Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer and the police detective who had interviewed the Harlem teenager twice in the last 27 hours. Another officer handled a video camera.

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The officer switched the camera on. The time stamp read 2:30 a.m., on April 21, 1989. It was the first time a camera would be used to record any of Santana’s interviews with police, and Lederer read Santana his rights, making sure that the detectives had done the same earlier in the night.

"Yes," Santana kept mumbling in response, his voice barely audible over a growing din at the Central Park precinct station.

"Now that I've advised you of your rights," Lederer began to ask, "are you willing to tell me the truth about what happened on the night of April 19, 1989?"

Santana didn’t know it at the time, but the 30 minutes that would follow the detective’s question would seal Santana’s future and ensure his conviction in a case that featured little other evidence against him or the four other Harlem boys charged along with him.

• • •

In the United States, false confessions play a role in about one in four wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. The confessions often come forth following hours of interrogation, resulting in a statement of guilt put on paper in front of the investigating detectives or, as in Santana's case, on videotape. Although technically a person cannot be convicted on a confession alone, it often plays a crucial role in a trial.

"Confession evidence is heavily relied upon by juries because it’s counterintuitive that one would confess to something that they didn't do," said Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project, the New York-based nonprofit legal clinic that has tracked more than 310 DNA exonerations nationwide.

For Saloom and other reform advocates, a written or videotaped confession only tells part of the story. Capturing an interrogation from beginning to end, on the other hand, creates an undeniable record that ensures the veracity of confessions. That, Saloom said, benefits both the defendant and the prosecution.

Seventeen states – along with the District of Columbia – have already adopted some degree of videotaping requirement. Last September, the commissioner of the world's largest police force announced that it would adopt the practice.

Although New York City prosecutors have selectively taped interrogations for decades, the New York Police Department was supposed to be on track to conduct them on a regular basis in every one of its 76 precincts.

In October, The New York Times reported that only two precincts were videotaping interrogations of felony assaults and sexual assaults, the same two precincts that were part of the NYPD’s pilot program announced in 2010.

{pullquote}"It gives the prosecutor a greater sense of security because it shows more accurately than the words the defendant's state of mind."{/pullquote}

Despite its growing popularity, opponents still argue the policy will deter police officers from doing their jobs. But what goes into that job and the means used to get a confession can be just as controversial as the policy itself.

New York City is no stranger to the practice of videotaping suspects. In fact, the Bronx District Attorney's office is the first documented office to videotape confessions on a regular basis. In 1983, The New York Times wrote about how, under Mario Merola's leadership, the Bronx DA's recording policy led the way for neighboring DA's to do the same.

"It gives the prosecutor a greater sense of security because it shows more accurately than the words the defendant's state of mind," former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau told The Times.

Six years later, it was Morgenthau's office that led the investigation into 1989's Central Park jogger case.

• • •

NYPD first picked up Santana at 11 p.m. Complaints were coming into police that as many as 30 black and Latino boys were roaming through Central Park, harassing and assaulting bystanders.

Santana was soon joined at the police precinct on Central Park West and West 86th Street by Antron McCray, 15; Kevin Richardson, 14; Yusef Salaam, 15; and Korey Wise, 16. They didn’t all know each other when they were arrested, but all five were already in custody when police made a gruesome discovery in the park.

Officers found a female jogger on a path alongside a small river in the park's North Woods around 2 a.m. Near death, she was bleeding and unconscious from a brutal assault and rape. Police spent the next crucial hours trying to connect the dots between the boys they had in custody and the jogger.

Headlines across the country didn't wait until the jury's verdict to find the Santana and the four other boys guilty. In this case, the offense was clear and the case was closed: four of the five confessed. The four youngest spent at least five years in juvenile correctional facilities.

Wise, the oldest at 16 years of age, served nearly 12 years in prison as an adult. While there, Wise had a run in with Matías Reyes. Reyes, who was serving time for the 1989 rape and murder of a pregnant woman, was also linked to least seven other rapes in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Reyes apologized to Wise about an earlier fight. They talked for a while. After they spoke, Reyes turned to a correctional employee and said that someone was serving time for a crime that he committed.

Word of Reyes' admission eventually made its way back down to Manhattan, which in 2002 prompted the district attorney’s office to compare Reyes's DNA with samples collected from the Central Park crime scene, samples that never matched any of the boys. The test showed that the DNA was a match for Reyes.

The "new evidence, had it been available to the juries, would have resulted in verdicts more favorable to the defendants, not only on the charges arising from the attack on the female jogger but on the other charges as well,” Morgenthau wrote in a statement that prompted officials in late 2002 to overturn the convictions.

New city leaders had to deal with the aftermath of the exoneration. Less than a year into his first term as mayor, Michael Bloomberg released a statement on the heels of the court's decision.

"I know District Attorney Morgenthau has sought to see justice served, and I have asked Police Commissioner [Ray] Kelly to look at the District Attorney's findings to determine if any changes in police procedures are merited," Bloomberg wrote in January 2003.

• • •

Kelly took no visible steps immediately after Bloomberg released his statement in 2003. In fact, it wasn't until early 2010 — seven years after the Central Park Five’s convictions were overturned — that the NYPD said it would even explore how it might change how officers conduct interrogations.

It took another year for the NYPD to actually launch two pilot programs to videotape interrogations, one in the Bronx's 48th Precinct and another in Brooklyn's 67th Precinct. At that point, the cameras were only used for felony assault cases.

In August 2012, The Wall Street Journal followed up on the pilot program and found that progress was slow. Paul Browne, then the police department's deputy commissioner and spokesman, told The Journal that the NYPD would expand the pilot program to five precincts from the original two. That suddenly changed the following month.

Five weeks after Browne spoke to The Journal, Kelly began an hour-long speech to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs by announcing that all precincts would adopt the videotaping of interrogations. The policy would also expand beyond just felony assaults, which Kelly said totaled around 300 interviews at the time, to include murders and sex crimes.

"We want to continue to stay ahead of the curve with the help of our recording initiative," Kelly told the audience. He was not specific about a timeline for implementation, nor has the NYPD ever made that information public.

During an unrelated press conference, Bloomberg speculated that significant progress could be made before his third and final term ends in late 2013. That gave NYPD one year to secure a $3 million grant from the New York City Police Foundation to purchase the necessary equipment to update antiquated interrogation rooms and re-train police officers.

{pullquote}A spokesman for the Police Department told The New York Times in October that the NYPD was rolling out the program as fast as it could but that only 28 of the city’s 76 precincts are even outfitted for videotaping interrogations.{/pullquote}

Almost 23 years after Raymond Santana and the other boys were taken to the Central Park precinct for questioning, Kelly and Bloomberg stood in front of the building’s glass doors on a sunny but cold late-March morning.

"Crime in Central Park is down by 80 percent compared to 20 years ago," Kelly said during the event. "This facility underscores just how seriously the City of New York and its police department take our mission of keeping this park safe."

A spokesman for the police department told The New York Times in October that the NYPD was rolling out the program as fast as it could but that only 28 of the city’s 76 precincts are even outfitted for videotaping interrogations.

Asked during a brief press conference after the ribbon cutting, Kelly said that NYPD would begin to roll out the recording program in Queens "probably" by the first week of April 2014. The other boroughs would soon follow, he added, as they continue to collect funds from the Police Foundation.

"We are assembling money, you might say," he said. "We're committed to going forward."

Seven months later — and with less than eight weeks left in Bloomberg’s administration —  NYPD is still only conducting interviews in the same two precincts it launched its pilot program in. A spokesman for the police department told The New York Times in October that the NYPD was rolling out the program as fast as it could but that only 28 of the city’s 76 precincts are even outfitted for videotaping interrogations.

• • •

By the time police first questioned him, the 14-year-old Santana hadn't slept for about a day. He was told repeatedly that he could go home as soon as they sorted out his story, and that any charges stemming from the night were likely to go to family court.

Santana said that the detective didn't start taking notes until the interview turned to the rape. The other boy, he was told, said he was the rapist. That's when his and the others’ stories began to change.

"They knew we were going to confess,” Santana said. “It was just a matter of time."


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