False Witnesses

The Myth of the Central Park Five

The West Memphis Three, the Norfolk Four, and yes, the Central Park Five: All were gruesome and horrible crimes, but did all involve false confessions?


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The only time that I’m pretty sure that I locked up the wrong man was during a gang war in the South Bronx, a few years ago. There were five or six shootings, and about a dozen people were hit. No one died, and I don’t think any of the incidents made the papers. My case involved a young man I’ll call J, who suffered a graze wound to the head. He told me that K had done it. Most of the shootings in our precinct should have been as amenable to quick arrest as that one, but one of the more dispiriting aspects of being an inner city detective is how much time is spent, in vain, begging victims to tell you who shot them. They know, but they won’t say. While I was delighted to close my case, another detective in my squad was not: K was his witness, in a prior incident.

“I locked up J’s buddy for one of the earlier shootings,” he said. “J was there. He’s just trying to dirty up whoever’s testifying.”

It was an interesting theory, but it didn’t change my obligation to my victim. K hadn’t been inspired to speak up only out of public duty; he was on parole for an unrelated stabbing, and his PO strongly encouraged his cooperation. At the precinct, K was persuasive in his denial, but there wasn’t any alibi he could provide. It was J’s word against K’s, and it wasn’t up to me to decide whose story seemed the more plausible. That kind of fact-finding—often amid a scarcity of facts—would be for a jury to determine. As J didn’t appear to testify, the charges were dropped. I never saw J again, though I did run into K a few times after, and we talked. I believed him, but I’d spend no more time searching for the truth in the case than I would for a sock lost in a dryer.

Shootings are often more challenging to investigate than homicides. With murders, as has been said, there’s one less liar to deal with. The J-K shooting was simple enough, in that it was a matter of arithmetic logic that one of them was telling the truth. The morality of other cases can be far murkier, the mathematics maddeningly complex, as witnesses, perpetrators, victims, and informants shift roles from felony to felony, related or otherwise. When prosecutors and cops make decisions on who to believe, and how to proceed on those beliefs, the process might be described as a beauty pageant in reverse.

In one of my homicides, I had one wonderful witness, a legit Good Samaritan with 20-20 vision and photographic memory. I also had a friend of the defendant, present at the scene, whose conduct was sufficiently ambiguous to prevent his being charged, but whose motives for being there were not likely noble. Nonetheless, his account of the murder matched that of the other witness precisely. We decided to use him, even after he was arrested for a gang assault. We didn’t change our minds when he was arrested again, for a drug-related home invasion, and sent upstate for an extended prison term. We felt that, rotten as he was, the jury might credit his version of events, given how closely it matched the other, impartial one. We lost the case. For what it’s worth, I take some consolation from the fact that he’s wearing an orange uniform instead of a blue one—before his first arrest, he was about to go into the police academy.

A beauty pageant, and a math problem. How many witnesses do we have who are willing to talk? Who do we have whose past is so ugly that a jury can’t look away from it, and see nothing else? Do we put the heroin dealer on the stand against an armed robber? Yes, probably, provided we can corroborate his account. Do we take the wife-beater’s word against that of the pedophile? Yes, probably. That of a murderous serial rapist against a gang of teenagers who admitted to assaulting and robbing half a dozen people, and admitted and then denied raping and nearly killing someone else, in the same place, at the same time? Yes, apparently.

The Central Park Jogger case was recently settled for $41 million dollars to the five men convicted in the brutal rape of a twenty-eight year old investment banker. Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century” when it happened in 1989, and a full quarter of a century has elapsed since its commission. The jogger had her head bashed in, and she’d lost most of the blood in her body; the degree to which she ultimately recovered was little short of miraculous. The five were also convicted, along with five others, in a series of crimes committed by a loose group of thirty-plus, often-unacquainted youths who went marauding through the park that night. Some people were chased; some robbed; two men were beaten unconscious. A cop said one of them looked as if he’d been “dunked in a bucket of blood.” There were over 1,900 murders in New York City that year, and over 93,000 robberies. The robbery figure certainly represents an undercount, as many didn’t bother reporting crime to a department that seemed unable and sometimes unwilling to guarantee public safety. One man approached a scooter cop in Central Park that night after being attacked, telling him where it happened; the cop promptly scooted off in the opposite direction.

In the Central Park jogger case—or that of the Central Park Five, depending on whether alleged perpetrators or victims should be the flagship designee—the confessions of the teenagers are partial and contradictory. (A sixth young man was implicated by the others, but he denied responsibility for the rape, and was ultimately allowed to plead to lesser charges.) Some of the Five said they went on to other attacks, after the rape; others said it was the final crime of the night. All said that they only touched the jogger or helped restrain her, while one or more of the others forced themselves on her. It is not unusual for an individual criminal to minimize his part in a collective crime; the turbulent dynamics of crowds drives teenage boys, especially, to do spectacularly awful things together that they never would do alone. It is a corollary of the “bystander effect,” in which notions of personal responsibility are diffused when larger numbers of people are present.

In an investigation, a detective has a responsibility to search for the truth in a case, in the beginning and at the end. After any number of open-ended interviews are conducted, a suspect may emerge. The interview then shifts to interrogation, which is a conversation intended to obtain inculpatory statements. Denial often breaks down in stages: “I wasn’t there” becomes, “I was there, but I didn’t do anything,” before you get, “I was only the lookout, my buddy was the shooter.” The buddy may have made the opposite claim about who did what.

While it’s preferable to elicit the unvarnished, unvacillating truth, dishonest statements can be more illuminating than honest ones. When I went from New York to Los Angeles to talk to a fugitive who had killed his wife, stabbing her a dozen times, I was content with his admission that he’d accidentally tripped and fallen on her, while he was holding a knife. His lie was more revelatory than a candid disclosure, as he’d admitted not only to his guilt, but also to his abiding dishonesty and lack of regret. The self-portrait he’d painted for me would begin the story for a jury; the autopsy report would finish it. He took a plea.

In the Central Park trials, forensic evidence was nearly nonexistent. A few hair specimens recovered from two defendants’ clothing were held to be “consistent” with that of the victim. DNA was in its infancy—the first conviction based on the science in the United States had only occurred in 1987, and the first databank in New York wouldn’t be operational until 1996—and larger, cleaner samples than are necessary today were required to identify or disqualify a suspect. A recent reevaluation of hair analysis in past cases by the FBI found that 88 percent of their findings were confirmed by DNA, which leaves ample room for reasonable doubt. The jogger had no memory of the attack, and none of the other victims could make an identification of the Five. Two 14-year-olds were convicted, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana; two 15-year-olds, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam; and one 16-year-old, Korey Wise.

Testimony was what made the case, chiefly the confessions of the young men. Santana, McCray, and Richardson made video statements in the presence of a parent or guardian, and Wise made several statements, on his own, as the law permits. Salaam told the police he was sixteen, and he produced identification to that effect, allowing police to interrogate him without a parent. After his mother arrived, the questioning ended, but his oral admissions were admitted into testimony. In addition to the confessions, one of the other boys, while in the back of a patrol car, cried that he “didn’t do the murder,” but that he knew who did: Antron McCray. The boy beside him, Kevin Richardson, agreed: “Antron did it.” The jogger hadn’t yet been found. Later on, after Raymond Santana had been interrogated about the rape, he was being driven to another precinct. Without prompting, he blurted out, “I had nothing to do with the rape. All I did was feel her tits.”

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There was one witness whose statement had not been solicited by the police. Melonie Jackson, the older sister of a friend of Korey Wise, talked to him after he called the house from Rikers Island. When she expressed her dismay about the rape, Wise said that he’d only held the jogger down. Jackson volunteered this information to detectives, just before the trial, in the mistaken belief that it would help Wise. When ordered to take the stand, she wept, but she still swore that the conversation had occurred, just as she’d said. In his authoritative 1992 account of the trials, Unequal Verdicts, Timothy Sullivan relates that the prosecution thought her a “perfect witness,” but the jurors, oddly, chose not to credit her testimony in their deliberations.

Thirteen years later, after the boys had served between six and thirteen years in prison, a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the rape, and DNA evidence later established that his was the only semen sample recovered from the scene. Though the brutality of the attack on the Central Park jogger staggered the public imagination, it was a lesser example of his viciousness. He was convicted of raping four women and killing one of them, who was pregnant, while her young children were in the apartment. With some of them, he’d cut them around their eyes, to prevent them from identifying him. He also admitted to sexually assaulting his mother. His lawyer called him “the devil,” after Reyes attacked him during sentencing. A defense psychiatrist concluded that Reyes was not capable of telling the truth.

What are the odds that an entirely unrelated rape should occur in the midst of a violent crime spree lasting some forty-five minutes, in a small, sparsely populated area? That a gang who threatened and assaulted four joggers, among others, had nothing to do with a fifth? And yet, Matias Reyes had raped a woman in the park, two nights before. Was it negligent for the police to fail to consider the two crimes in context? At least one detective had a leading role in both cases; the same judge, Thomas Galligan, presided over the trials of Reyes and the Central Park Five. The dots seem eminently connectable, even given the city averages that would have amounted to over 500 murders and a thousand rapes between the arrests of the Five in April and Reyes in August. More pertinent was the loose working assumption—which I share—that certain kinds of guys only do really bad stuff in groups, with the worst driving the action and the weak swept up in the moment, while there are solitary predators who need no incitement beyond what they hear between their own ears.

That general experience of human behavior seems to have been shared by Nancy Ryan, the deputy chief of the Trial Division for the Manhattan District Attorney, in her motion to vacate all criminal convictions of the Five, for both the rape of the jogger, and the assaults and robberies of the other victims. All were out of prison by then, and Reyes, hopefully, will never leave it, though none of his admissions placed him in any additional jeopardy, given the statute of limitations. The arguments for vacating the verdicts held that the new factual landscape—admissions without evidence, versus incontrovertible proof accompanied by the testimony of a psychopath—would have had a very different impact, had a jury heard then what we know now. And to include a truly gruesome rape and near-murder among the lesser acts of violence tainted the process beyond remedy. It was as if the five were charged with fifty counts of shoplifting, and one of strangling a grandmother. Once the primary accusation was decided, the rest didn’t matter. The bathwater would go out with the baby.

What is fascinating to me about the Ryan document is how she wrestles with Reyes, so to speak, trying to reconcile his record of unrelenting malignity—he tried to rape a woman in a church—with his Come-to-Jesus moment that turned the case upside down. He felt impelled to come forward, he said, when he ran into the last imprisoned defendant, Korey Wise, in 2001, when they were both at the Auburn Correctional Facility. His explanations for speaking up are thin and muddled: He describes a measure of personal growth through attending religious services, and “positive experiences in prison.” He said he felt sorry for Wise, and was afraid of what would happen, should Wise find out that he was responsible for the crime. Of course, in accepting this last claim, there was no way Wise could have found out that Reyes had raped the jogger, unless Reyes admitted it in the spectacular public fashion which he proceeded to do. Ryan found no evidence of intimidation by Wise or anyone else, or the slightest connection between the two, aside from a brief period in 1990, when both were jailed in Rikers Island. She dwells at length on how Reyes was a “loner,” and how almost everyone saw him as such—neighbors, acquaintances, even cops from the local precinct—though she concedes that he’d committed at least one other robbery with friends. Nonetheless, she concludes with a ringing recitation of reasons why this “self-confessed and convicted serial rapist—who habitually stalked white women in their 20s” was more persuasive than not in his claims, including that he had “committed all his sex crimes alone.”

A semi-official rebuttal was provided by Michael Armstrong, a former federal prosecutor and chief counsel to the Knapp Commission in the 1970s, whose headline witness, Frank Serpico, told of endemic and appalling police corruption. Armstrong was appointed by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to a three-man panel that included a deputy commissioner for legal affairs, and another independent attorney. The document had no legal standing, but was offered to the public as a sharp elbow to some of the assertions made by Ryan. He concedes the legal arguments relating to vacating the convictions, but disputes the sharp either/or position that the guilt of Reyes proved the innocence of the Five. Instead, he offers the theory that it is most probable that there was an overlap between the two, and Reyes either joined an earlier assault on the jogger and remained, or was attracted by her screams and jumped in after the “hit-and-run” violence typical of what had been inflicted on the other victims.

In support of his assessment, he offers a number of tantalizing theories, only partially undergirded by fully explored evidence. There is what might be called the “opportunity” theory for Reyes coming forward when he did, which gained him readmission to the small, highly desirable prison facility from which he’d just been thrown out; there is the coercion theory, which speculates that seeing Wise in the general population at Auburn in 2001 prompted thoughts of survival rather than remorse. Wise was a member of the Bloods gang, and Armstrong et al. note that, while inmates cannot write letters to each other, they can and do write to outsiders who pass on messages back to prisoners. Two inmates who had separately met Reyes said he’d been threatened by Wise, pointing to a third inmate, named Mejias, who was the purported intermediary, and a fourth inmate who could corroborate their accounts. According to Armstrong, Mejias and the other man refused to be interviewed, claiming that they had been instructed not to talk to the police by the Manhattan DA. To add to the conspiratorial flair, they added that the DA told them not to talk to the FBI or the CIA either. According to prison movement records, it wasn’t possible for Reyes to have met Wise under the circumstances described.

The Armstrong report resembles a defense document more than a prosecution brief in its approach, throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. Some parts are stickier than others. Wise and Reyes didn’t just meet in Rikers Island in 1990; they had a fight there. Reyes later laughed it off as a “run-in” over what to watch on TV that night. He cited “positive experiences” in jail in 1990 to his psychologist among the reasons he took a plea, despite exploding at his sentencing, cursing at the judge, assaulting his lawyer, and injuring several court officers.

One acquaintance of Wise who said that he bragged about the rape before his arrest repeated his story for Armstrong in 2002; another said he didn’t remember what he’d said in 1989. Melonie Jackson, who testified about Wise’s call from Rikers, stuck by her story in 2002. As for the reevaluation of forensic evidence, one hair held to be consistent with that of the jogger was lost, and an FBI analyst repudiated his predecessor’s testimony about the three others. They were not suitable for comparison microscopically, he said. DNA retests on those hairs, according to Ryan, tended to disfavor connection to the jogger, though insufficient material existed to meet established scientific standards for verification. Armstrong counters by pointing out that various blood and semen stains had also been recovered from the clothing of three defendants. He concedes that they didn’t figure much as evidence then, and the samples, if they exist, might be too small, too degraded, or contaminated for retesting—but, in the Ryan motion, they aren’t mentioned at all. Only two of the Five were arrested the night of the attack, delaying the collection of evidence; three others were brought in the next day. Armstrong notes that Wise washed his clothes as soon as he got home that night. Did he do that often? Ever? Without context, it is unfair to draw conclusions.

Neither Armstrong nor Ryan mention the original supervising prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, by name, though it was widely reported that the two women were rivals in the DA’s office trial division , and had battled over the case from the beginning. Though the survival of the victim likely determined its assignment to Fairstein, as head of the sex crime unit, reports of rancor between the two were commonplace in the world of New York law enforcement, even before the 2002 motion to vacate the convictions. Fairstein has since claimed that Ryan helped scuttle her chances for nomination as attorney general during the Clinton administration. Both women were trailblazers, and remain exceptionally highly regarded among their peers. But it remains baffling to many why Robert Morgenthau, the legendary Manhattan DA, would choose Ryan when he had such a deep bench of talent to choose from among his staff. Such a factually complex, racially incendiary case would have been difficult enough to revisit without the appearance of an in-house conflict of interest.


A “Crime of the Century” that takes on mythic dimensions as an allegory of a city in decline. A killer’s confession that upends the once-obvious prosecution of a murderous assault. Sensational and often reckless reports in the press threaten the fairness of a trial. Earnest questions are raised over the coercive nature of police interrogations. Race lurks, overtly or covertly, in the strategic decisions of prosecution and defense. The specter of wrongful convictions haunts the public officials involved. It couldn’t happen twice, could it?

Fifty years ago, early in the morning of March 13, 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was driving home from her late shift managing a sports bar to her home in Kew Gardens, a quiet, middle class enclave in Queens. Her apartment was one in a series of attached, Tudor-style, second-story residential units, accessible from the rear, with commercial establishments facing the street on the ground floor. When she parked her car, she noticed a man following her. She ran, but he caught her, and began to stab her in the middle of the street. It was 2:30 am. Her screams attracted attention, awakening one man who lived on the seventh floor of a nine-story building across the street. He looked out and “saw this fellow bending over this girl and she was in a kneeling position.” He yelled out the window—others recalled him shouting, “What’s going on down there? What’s going on down there?” —and the man ran away.

Kitty staggered around the corner to the rear of her building, trying to make it home. One witness said she continued to scream, “Please help me, God. Please help me, I’ve been stabbed.” She collapsed in a neighbor’s vestibule, where her assailant returned to find her, stabbing her at least nine more times and sexually assaulting her. A man who lived upstairs opened his door and witnessed the attack. He called a friend to ask her what to do; she told him not to get involved. He made a second call, to Kitty’s next-door neighbor, Sophie Farrar, who called the police before rushing out to help. Farrar had a baby of her own at home. She was the only one who either called or helped, and she ran to Genovese without knowing whether the assailant was still at the scene. She held Kitty to comfort her until the ambulance arrived. Kitty died on the way to the hospital. Forty-five minutes were estimated to have elapsed from the time the stabbing began until the killer left.

In canvassing the neighborhood over the next two days, police identified at least 37 individuals who had seen or heard some aspect of the attack. They believed the number to be larger, suspecting that many simply refused to admit any knowledge of it. The lack of reaction disturbed them, and Police Commissioner Michael Murphy later shared this concern over lunch with the metropolitan editor of The New York Times, Abe Rosenfeld. Two weeks after the death, on March 27, Rosenfeld ran the story he’d assigned on the front page:

37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN’T CALL THE POLICEApathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector

The impact of the story, as well as the next-day follow-up quoting experts on why and how it might have happened, is hard to underestimate. President Lyndon Johnson weighed in; national symposia of eminent men were held to discuss the issue. The lack of reaction was seen as emblematic of the cold indifference of New York City, or held up as proof of the myopic individualism of modern life. A psychiatrist who attended one such conference blamed television for the complacency. The theme of the “silent accomplice,” of collusion by quiescence, had gained in popular resonance over recent years: Martin Niemöller’s ironic formulation—“First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a socialist…”—had become familiar to college students by the late 1950s; Hannah Arendt’s contentious epigram on the “banality of evil” entered the language in an essay from 1961. Weren’t we all to blame for this, in some larger sense?

Who was to be blamed in a narrow sense had been established, five days after the murder. Television in general might not have mattered in what happened that night, but one in particular brought the case to a close. A man named Winston Moseley was arrested after being seen carrying a TV out of a home in Hollis, Queens—then, as now, a middle and working class black neighborhood. It was three in the afternoon, and a concerned neighbor named Raoul Cleary asked Moseley what he was doing. He replied that he was helping the family move. Cleary checked with another neighbor to ask if it was true, and was told, “Absolutely not.” The cops were called, and Moseley was grabbed a block away. Since he matched the rough description of the killer in the Genovese case, he was questioned about it. He admitted responsibility without hesitation, and in meticulous, grisly detail.

Moseley then went on to volunteer that he’d committed another murder, that of Annie Mae Johnson, a black woman killed two weeks before Genovese. He claimed to have shot her. One of the detectives present was skeptical; the medical examiner had determined that Johnson had been stabbed to death, most likely with an ice pick or similar instrument. It was with a sardonic cast of mind that he said, “I bet you also killed that fifteen-year-old girl in Springfield Gardens in July of last year.”

Moseley replied, “Yeah, I did that one too.”

When the body of Johnson was exhumed, the medical examiner was acutely chagrined when six .22 caliber rounds were removed from it. (It has subsequently become standard procedure to X-ray a body as part of an autopsy). Embarrassment didn’t begin to describe the reaction of prosecutors to the detective’s wisecrack. Barbara Jean Kralik was the girl murdered the summer before, stabbed to death in her bed while her parents slept in the room next door. It had been a headline case, and a task force of over a hundred detectives had been assigned to investigate. And it had come to a successful conclusion with the arrest of eighteen-year-old Alvin “Monster” Mitchell, who was awaiting trial for the murder. The centerpiece of the case against him was his confession.

Charles E. Skoller was a relatively junior assistant district attorney assigned to both the Moseley and Mitchell trials. In his memoir, Twisted Confessions, he relates the hellish complexity of the Mitchell case—Moseley admitted to the three killings on the stand at his trial, in a failed bid for an insanity defense—and the predicament of convincing a jury from the mostly white, semi-suburban county that had cast 45 percent of its votes for Richard Nixon in 1960 that the dead-eyed African American sex fiend was innocent of killing Kralik, and the handsome blonde teenager was guilty. It was “a prosecutor’s nightmare,” as Skoller put it, and he often believed that his boss, Queens DA Frank O’Connor, was throwing him under the bus by sticking him with the case. Mitchell had denied killing Kralik during five separate interviews with the police before admitting to killing her during the sixth, after all of his prior alibis had been disproven. In addition to his police confession, Mitchell had acknowledged his responsibility on camera, to a TV news crew. Still, Moseley would be far more consistent in his claims. He’d also gone on record about how he tried to rape a corpse. When jurors hear that kind of thing, it’s hard to think about anything else. Doubt was more than reasonable, and the district attorney shared it.

On several occasions, O’Connor expressed his inclination to dismiss the indictment against Mitchell, and it took a great deal of effort by Skoller and other, more senior prosecutors to persuade him to allow the trial to go forward. O’Connor had been a defense lawyer before his election, and his most celebrated case had been that of Manny Balestrero, a musician falsely accused of a series of armed robberies. Five witnesses had identified him in the crimes, and it was only because the actual robber was arrested during his second trial that he escaped conviction. Henry Fonda played Balestrero in Alfred Hitchcock’s grim docudrama, The Wrong Man. The case cemented O’Connor’s reputation, and made him forever mindful of how justice can miscarry.

Skoller didn’t doubt that Mitchell was guilty, though he despaired of his chances at prevailing at trial. The investigation that had led to Mitchell’s arrest had been painstaking and persuasive: Mitchell had dated Kralik’s best friend, who was supposed to be sleeping over with her that night. He had been at the house before, and his familiarity with its layout allowed him to enter through a window, move quietly past Kralik’s brother and grandmother, asleep on the first floor, and find the girl’s bedroom on the second. He had a history of violence, especially when he’d been drinking, and he’d been drunk that night. He’d burglarized a school with a friend earlier, and had stolen a pair of scissors, which he had in his possession when his friend dropped him off in Springfield Gardens. The wounds Kralik suffered were consistent with what the scissors would have caused. The friend testified that they had broken into the school; that he had dropped Mitchell off near the house; that he picked Mitchell up shortly after the murder, and left him at a bus stop, just after; that Mitchell had admitted to killing Kralik when she reacted out of shock to finding him in her bedroom, and his own surprise at not finding his girlfriend there.

Though the only person who heard Barbara Jean Kralik speak before she died was a detective who testified that she’d said only, “It was dark, it was dark,” an article in the Daily News claimed that she’d said of her assailant, “I never saw him before in my life.” Other stories suggestively conflated “It was dark” with “He was dark.” When Moseley testified at Mitchell’s trial, he was wrong about significant details: the Kralik house was in the middle of the block, not on the corner; he’d said the weather was clear and dry, when it had been rainy; the serrated steak knife he claimed to have used would not have caused the kind of wounds found on the body. Skoller relates how lucky he was for a hung jury—the final, deadlocked vote was eleven to one, for acquittal. O’Connor grudgingly allowed Skoller to pursue a retrial, but he told him that his next attempt would be his last.

In the months that passed before the second Mitchell trial, in February, 1965, Skoller was able to locate a witness of the caliber that a lawyer is lucky to come across once in a lifetime. James Lewis was a bus driver with the mind of a savant. When cross-examined on how he knew a particular date fell on a particular day of the week, Lewis didn’t miss a beat—he knew August 29, 1963, was a Thursday, after it was tossed out as a random pop-quiz—and he was able to provide turn-by-turn descriptions of routes he hadn’t driven in four years. He remembered Mitchell getting on the bus, seemingly drunk, with a bloody hand; he remembered exactly what Mitchell was wearing; he remembered Mitchell looking out the window when the route took them back near the Kralik house. Asked if there was any reason why he’d remember the night of the Kralik murder, July 20, with such vividness, Lewis replied that his wife had given birth the day before; the day after, July 21, he’d visited her in the hospital, bringing newspapers that were full of stories about Kralik. He hadn’t associated his passenger with the incident, but, now that he saw him, he was certain it was the same man. Defense counsel asked for a recess, visibly shaken.

Still, Moseley had yet to take the stand. Skoller offered him immunity from prosecution relating to the Kralik murder, as he had in the previous trial. Though called as a defense witness, neither side knew what would come out of his mouth when the moment came. Suffice it to say that only one attorney was pleased when Moseley denied having killed Kralik, and refused to say anything further on the subject. Skoller writes, “Repeatedly, Judge Thompson held him in contempt of court, but it was a meaningless threat for someone already under sentence of death.” Mitchell was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to 10 to 20 years.

Looking back at the case, one of the most striking things to me is procedural: Moseley was convicted in June, 1964, for a murder he committed in March. That would be considered breakneck speed by modern standards, especially in the Bronx, where cases often linger for four or five years. The other is psychological, the anomalous prospect that Moseley presented: he was 29, and had never been arrested. He had a steady job as a machine operator, and owned his own home. He was married to a nurse, and had two children. If he’d quit committing crimes after killing Genovese, he might have never been caught. In 1967, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, because the judge hadn’t allowed expert testimony relating to his mental health at sentencing, reckoning that the jury had already rejected an insanity defense. In 1968, Moseley shoved a tin can into his rectum, occasioning a hospitalization from which he escaped to go on a rampage of rape and hostage-taking. In 1977, he published an op-ed in the Times, advocating for prison reform, and noting his own transformation, which included gaining a bachelor’s degree in sociology: “The crime was tragic, but it did serve society, urging as it did for its members for come to the aid of those in distress or danger.” Moseley wasn’t altogether wrong about his social service, in that his case helped propel the implementation of the 911 system. Now, you don’t have to find the number of the nearest precinct to reach the police. Maybe more of Kitty’s neighbors would have called the cops, if it involved dialing three numbers they knew, instead of seven that they didn’t.

The initial Times reports of dozens of witnesses taking in a 45-minute murder as if it were a late-night movie have largely been debunked. Most of the witnesses had heard or seen something, sort-of; several were elderly, many roused from sleep. Only two exhibited the apathy and cowardice that the murder later exemplified: Joseph Fink, a superintendent at the building across the street, had a clear view of the first phase of the stabbing. He watched for a while, and then took a nap. And Karl Ross, Kitty’s neighbor, who opened his door to see her being stabbed a flight below, made calls seeking advice without including the police among his advisers. Two others did intervene—Robert Mozer, whose shouts drove Moseley away, and Sophie Farrar, who called the police and rushed out to try and help her. Otherwise, the only other semi-newsworthy fact to emerge is that Kitty lived with her lover, a woman, rather than the “roommate” discreetly reported at the time. But the bystander effect, which psychologists began to examine after the Genovese murder, has been repeatedly been confirmed in experiments. In 1995, Moseley sought a new trial, on the grounds that one of his lawyers had also represented Kitty Genovese in a minor matter in 1961. He is presently the longest-serving inmate in the state.

In a 50th a-anniversary reflection for The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann notes that race didn’t figure in coverage of the case, but publishing side-by-side photographs of the black male killer and white female victim made overt discussion unnecessary. Moseley became a symbolic figure in many ways, but he was hardly representative of the welfare-kid, drug-addict, ghetto-dweller seen as driving the rising city crime rates—murders went from 435 in 1960 to the then-shocking 681 of 1965. The case remains in the “What’s wrong with us?” column of public debate, rather than being filed as an exhibit in what was then called “The Negro Question.” I’ve spoken to friends about the case as I’ve written this, and one, a highly-educated, widely-read crime buff, didn’t know that Moseley was black. I found that to be oddly heartening, and then slightly depressing in how unusual it was for an interracial crime to be remembered in color-blind terms.


Though I spent most of my career in the South Bronx, I was, for a period, the NYPD liaison to the Jordanian National Police. In retrospect, 2009 and 2010 were halcyon days in the Middle East, now that we seem just one horseman short of an apocalypse. I spent most of my time on police training, particularly in regard to domestic violence and child abuse, though I did give lectures on interrogation. In collecting material for the bilingual, English-Arabic Power Point slides, clips from The Wire were easier to come by than NYPD curriculum material on interrogations. In researching how to systematically explain the trade I’d learned in an entirely unsystematic way, I came across numerous prescriptions on how to read body language that I knew to be, at best, gross oversimplifications. Some people looked me in the eyes when they lied, and others looked away when they told the truth. One especially pernicious—and persistent—bit of pseudoscience was a diagram of a face, showing that when the eyes look up and to the left, it indicates that a person is imagining, and hence lying, while looking up to the right means they’re remembering. Or it could be the reverse. And it’s reversed again for lefties. I quit trying to use that one early on, since I’d forget which side was which, and watching for eye movements while listening to someone talk, and double-checking to see if they were left-handed made me cross-eyed. But I’d been taught it, and I’d seen the diagrams in squad rooms over the years. Some of the Jordanians were familiar with the premise as well. I told them to throw them away whenever they found them, because they weren’t true. And if a good detective believes that he’s talking to a bad man, he’ll try to keep on talking until he hears something he can use against him.

False confessions were once considered ridiculous rarities, the province of lonely attention-seekers, like the two hundred who called in to take responsibility for the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby in the 1920s, or the sixty in the Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Or the result of torture, like the Soviet show-trials of the 1930s, and the frozen-faced denunciations of imperialism by prisoners of war. The “Birmingham Six,” the “Guildford Four,” the “Maguire Seven” were all Irish Catholics collected haphazardly in England in the 1970s after a series of IRA bombings. Dogs were used in the interrogations, and the accused were subjected to mock executions. Most confessed; all were later cleared, and offered large settlements and public apologies by the government.

With juries, admissions tend to trump other evidence as much as a full house beats two of a kind. Thirty percent of those cleared by the Innocence Project had confessed to their crimes. Many were innocent in attitude as well as in fact, young and deferent, without any history of police interaction, intellectually limited or emotionally fragile. They had been subjected to hours and hours of interrogation, and they said what they said just because they wanted the conversation to end. Some said that they were sure that the truth was bound to come out eventually; others came to believe that they had to be responsible, in some way, as if hypnotized, doubtful of reality. Twelve hours or 18 before, they’d been home on the couch, watching TV, and now they were struggling to help a firm but gentle stranger in a suit understand why they raped children. If one bad dream had come true, why couldn’t another? One such case, persuasively argued by Lawrence Wright in Remembering Satan, is that of Paul Ingram, a devout Pentecostal for whom demonic possession and divine revelations were accepted as ordinary phenomena, regular as rain. He came to believe, after long talks with his pastor and the police, that he had to have raped his daughters if they said so. He’d raised them not to lie. Ingram trusted law enforcement, not least because he was a sheriff himself.

There is a list of famous cases involving false confessions: Martin Tankleff, Jeffrey Deskovic, the “West Memphis 3,” the “Norfolk Four.” Tankleff, a 17-year-old, awoke one morning to find his parents brutally beaten and stabbed. His mother was dead, and his father was in a coma. Despite the fact that the father had a business partner who owed him $500,000, and who had recently threatened him, and who had been in the house the night before, detectives felt that Tankleff was too cold and unemotional in the aftermath, and they concentrated on him as a suspect even after the business partner faked his own death and moved to California. When Tankleff was in the interrogation room, he was told that his father had awakened and identified him. Invited to explain how that might be possible, he offered a confused conjecture about how he might have blacked out. Deskovic was another 17-year-old, but he struck police as overly emotional in his reaction to the rape and murder of a classmate, visiting her wake three times. He was interviewed several times, and likely raised alarms by sharing his own research on the case, offering tips about suspects he considered likely. He confessed after six hours of questioning, and was convicted despite the fact DNA from the crime scene implicated someone else. With Jesse Misskelley, the only one of the West Memphis 3 to confess to the murder of three young boys, his IQ was reported to be 74, and the admission came after 12 hours of questioning. Issues of police conduct were raised by defense counsel in each case, with varying degrees of credibility, and have been examined at length elsewhere, particularly with the West Memphis 3. With Tankleff, it isn’t unreasonable to point out to that for the lead detective to open a bar with the defendant’s half-sister, who became the primary beneficiary of the estate, shows a robust indifference to what other people might think.

The case of the Norfolk Four is the most disturbing, in that four adults—all servicemen, active-duty members of the Navy—confessed to the rape and stabbing murder of a woman in 1997. The first two were roommates, and neighbors of the victim. One confessed to have killed her alone; the other said he did it with his roommate. When the sole DNA sample recovered didn’t match either, the second man added a third conspirator. The third man confessed, but his DNA didn’t match. So too with a fourth man added by the second—yes on the confession, no DNA—who volunteered three more names, who denied any involvement. Charges were eventually dropped against them, in part because two had lock-solid alibis. What appeared to be a sole-perpetrator homicide, committed by someone known to the victim—no forced entry, the neat, 700-square foot apartment showing few signs of struggle, a consistency in the pattern of multiple wounds, a single DNA profile—had to accommodate an elastically expanding theory of gang assault. Almost two years after the murder, a man named Omar Ballard, who was serving a long prison sentence for rape, sent a threatening letter to another woman in which he bragged about the murder. He was a friend of the victim, and his DNA matched. He said he did it alone.

Two of the Norfolk four pled guilty, and two were convicted at trial. Ballard didn’t testify, but when he pled to the crime, he changed his story to include four accomplices. Prosecutors accounted for the inconsistency with a reverse-racism theory, saying Ballard, who was black, didn’t want to be associated with white rapist-murderers. One of the Four was released in 2005, and the three others were offered conditional pardons by then-Gov. Tim Kaine in 2009, the culmination of an effort supported not just by the Innocence Project, but an atypical coalition that included thirty former FBI agents, four former Virginia Attorneys General, and a dozen former prosecutors and judges.

One detective, Robert Glenn Ford, obtained the confessions from all four defendants, and secured the amended version Ballard provided as part of a plea bargain that spared him the death penalty. Ford had been thrown out of the Norfolk homicide squad earlier in his career, after confessions he’d secured from other suspects were shown to be false. Ford continued to maintain that the Four were guilty. He also insisted that the three against whom charges were dropped had also escaped justice, even if one had an ATM receipt that placed him hundreds of miles from the crime. In 2010, Ford was arrested for extortion, among other crimes, mostly relating to taking payoffs from criminals to claim they helped him in homicide investigations, reducing their sentences, or setting up informants to call a government-funded, cash-for-tips hotline. As he was convicted after trial, and was sentenced to the maximum of 12+ years, I’d assume that he never admitted anything himself.

In viewing the case of the Central Park Five in the context of substantiated false confessions, they are characteristic of them in several ways. The defendants were young, and none had ever been arrested. The first two brought in had waited overnight in a precinct before they were interrogated, although they had eaten and slept at intervals, and one had been with his mother, the other with his friends. Korey Wise was learning disabled and emotionally disturbed, and he’d also been held overnight. Excerpts of his video statements fill the highlight reels when unreliable confessions are the subject of TV programs. He says that someone cut the legs of jogger, when no one had, although her legs were covered with scratches. At one point, he could be channeling Lenny from Of Mice and Men: “See, I knew it was no rabbit because rabbits don’t make noise coming towards trees and stuff, but I heard a lot of giggling and a lot of running…”

Cops are allowed to tell certain kinds of lies to suspects, such as saying that they have evidence against them, when they don’t. Yusef Salaam was told that his fingerprints were found on the jogger’s pants, and a detective testified that he told him as much. They cannot promise leniency, directly or indirectly, in a transactional sense; they certainly can’t tell young men accused of grave felonies that they’re home-free as soon as they sign on the dotted line. Saying something like, “If you did it, it would better if you said you were sorry, sooner instead of later” would pass muster for most judges. Courts have ruled differently on what’s acceptable, in the totality of circumstances, as long as the quid pro quo wouldn’t lead an innocent person to confess. I don’t doubt the defendants and their families when they recall a sense of raised expectations of diminished consequences.

But the differences are also pronounced. The arrests were far from indiscriminate: Thirty-seven young men were interviewed regarding the attacks in the park; 12 were arrested, with 10 charged as adults; five went to trial for the rape of the jogger. Antron McCray, who had been accused of “the murder” by two boys, appeared at the precinct with his mother, before the body of the jogger had been discovered. He denied any responsibility, and was sent home. Salaam was brought in the next night, and admitted to the rape after 90 minutes of questioning. A large number of detectives were involved, with long and distinguished records, from three different squads. The inconsistencies in the statements suggest, at least, that there was no concerted effort to force admissions to fit the evidence. None of the Five admitted to the actual rape of the jogger; none noticed the copious blood loss, or seeing the victim bound and gagged. Ryan acknowledges errors in Reyes’ later confession—he said he raped the jogger, and then she ran, and then he beat her head with a rock, whereas the rape and skull fractures followed an escape attempt; he recalled nothing of his signature ligature. Armstrong also reminds us that the detectives had to be cognizant of the possibility that the jogger might wake up and say that it hadn’t happened that way at all. For cops, reports from a hospital that a victim is “likely to die” routinely prove to be premature. The judge was dismissive of claims of coercion because the defendants, once reunited after their confessions, laughed and joked, comparing versions of the stories they told. They sang songs—including, infamously, Wild Thing—and catcalled at a female detective.

On the matrix of circumstances under which false confessions have occurred, you have a great number in which police misconduct was the decisive factor; you have a lesser number in which some aspect of disability led a vulnerable suspect to confess, under inherently intimidating circumstances. Instances of multiple false confessions are still more infrequent, though a pair of mentally retarded half-brothers were recently exculpated after serving decades in prison for a murder in Virginia. As for cases of multiple, parentally supervised, false confessions, it’s harder to say. Family members were present for the questioning of three of the five, and they were there for the video recordings. When a teenager is asked about a rape in front of his mother, is he more or less likely to deny it? And when several admit to rape, sitting beside their mothers, sisters, grandmothers, fathers and stepfathers, what do we make of that? On video, Raymond Santana was smug, boastful, and nonchalant by turns, vividly reenacting who did what during the rape. Antron McCray was with his mother for most of his interrogation, his stepfather for all of it. He signed a written confession after an hour and 45 minutes. Even defense counsel would have to acknowledge that there isn’t an abundance of comparable cases in the available literature.

Was what happened to the Central Park Five completely wrong, or simply incomplete? I read Sarah Burns’ book, The Central Park Five, expecting a plaintiff’s brief, and it is that—she was an intern for lawyers pursuing civil claims on their behalf as a college student, in the summer of 2003. She believes passionately that the Five hadn’t raped the jogger; she is more circumspect in her treatment of their other felonies: “At some point, the metal bar from Korey’s house that Yusef had carried in the park had been used to beat Laughlin.” She is enthusiastic in her support of Ryan’s assessment, but doesn’t include this quote on their conduct that night: “The other crimes committed on April 19 were grave and inexcusable—unprovoked attacks on strangers, apparently undertaken for the fun of it, which left some terrorized, two knocked into unconsciousness, and one seriously injured.”

Burns is nonetheless impressively detailed and mostly fair-minded, acknowledging the exceptions and complexities in the cultural and evidentiary records: the term “wilding” had been in use before it made its way onto racially charged tabloid headlines, as “street slang for acting crazy, although it didn’t necessarily have violent connotations.” Melonie Jackson’s tale of Wise’s call from Rikers is “puzzling.” Burns vividly recounts the raw racial tensions of the time, in which New York seemed to be in a simultaneous state of explosion and collapse. A three-way tabloid circulation war was being waged amid a three-way mayoral election. Crack and AIDS were burning through the city, and there was an epidemic of violent street crime, overwhelmingly inflicted by black and Hispanic men on other black and Hispanics, though there was a greater diversity of robbery victims. (I was one, as were most white city kids I knew.) Except in cases with the highest body count, or the most grotesque cruelty, white victims were the only ones that mattered. Burns recalls, as a point of contrast, the barely noticed case of a woman raped and thrown from a rooftop by multiple assailants in Bedford-Stuyvesant on the same night as the jogger attack. She also observes that the leading black newspapers, The City Sun and The Amsterdam News, seemed to take the guilt of the Five for granted.

Dead white people were symbols; dead blacks were statistics, unless white people killed them. There were gang assaults by white racists in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach that left innocent black men dead. Reactions from those neighborhoods to protest marches would have made a Klansman proud. The facts were ugly enough, and the fictions were worse: New York had the Tawana Brawley hoax, in which a young black woman lied about being kidnapped and raped by whites, including police; Boston had the Charles Stuart hoax, in which a white man killed his pregnant wife and invented a black culprit. A black man he identified was arrested, and might have gone to prison, had Stuart’s brother not confessed to hiding the victim’s jewelry, in the belief that he’d only agreed to an insurance scam, and not a kill-your-pregnant-sister-in-law-and-blame-an-innocent-black-guy scam. Stuart jumped off a bridge before cops could talk to him again.

Though Burns is intriguing when she explores the problems with the prosecution of the Five, she is devastating on their defense. She concurs with Sullivan’s Unequal Verdicts in reviewing one lawyer as experienced and able; one she finds middling; the rest did more harm than good, as hacks and screamers. Two veterans of the Tawana Brawley hoax, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox—both of whom would later be disbarred—joined in at various stages. Burns doesn’t mention that Brawley herself made an appearance at the trial, to offer her moral support to the defendants. The implicit racial context was forcefully brought to the fore, as a cadre of black militant supporters crowded the courtroom and the sidewalks to denounce the female prosecutor and the jogger as “whores.” One lawyer said as much, in his cross-examination of the jogger, suggesting that her boyfriend had raped her, and that she slept with every male friend she had. Other lawyers claimed that she hadn’t been raped at all. The tactic backfired with the two carefully selected, majority-minority juries, who unanimously refused to accept entreaties to racial solidarity over slender evidence and compelling testimony.

The testimony included that of two defendants, Salaam and Wise, who took the stand to repudiate their confessions. Wise impressed the jury as pitiful, but volatile. Burns says that Salaam had been “portrayed in the media as angry and defiant,” while saying the same thing herself, three pages before: “Yusef’s responses came across as defiant and sarcastic.” He carried a Koran and swore on it that he’d done nothing to anyone that night. His story was that he was in the park with a lot of friends, but they moved too fast for him to keep up; he saw one attack from a distance, and walked past a body he believed to be dead, while he carried a metal pipe for no reason at all. At his sentencing, he “performed a spoken word poem he’d composed for the occasion, likening himself to such persecuted and assassinated leaders as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.” Burns doesn’t quote it, but it begins, “I’m a smooth type of fellow, cool, calm and mellow,” and moves on to the Her-Boyfriend-Did-It theory espoused by his supporters: “It’d be funny if she remembered and said, ‘I got hit by my man.’” The strategic decisions of defense counsel are rightly questioned, but no detectives put words in the mouths of Salaam and Wise then, and the jury saw them as violent liars.

The Innocence Project has done deservedly celebrated work exposing cases of wrongful convictions, chiefly in rapes and homicides. Some of those vindicated were the victims of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct, often in context of gross racial prejudice; with others, there were rushes to judgment, sloppy cop-work and sloppier lawyering, and any number of semi-honest or better errors—mistaken identifications by eyewitnesses are the most prevalent factor—that led juries to railroad defendants in subsequently proven train wrecks. Since its founding in 1992, there have been two million reported rapes and almost 400,000 homicides in the United States. DOJ and CDC numbers differ, and conviction rates are harder to evaluate. By my admittedly rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations, using the statistics of the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) that only ten percent of reported rapes result in felony convictions, and census data from the 2000s that puts the annual homicide conviction numbers at less than half of reported incidents, you still come up hundreds of thousands of rape and homicide convictions over the past 22 years. There are over two million people incarcerated in the United States, and more than twice that number under correctional supervision.

The Innocence Project has reduced it, morally and materially. As of this writing, their count of vindications is 318. The Central Park Five are listed among them. God bless them for every case they’ve won, and we should be ashamed of every travesty they’ve exposed. But it’s a very tiny number. The more startling statistic for me is that, with the cases the Innocence Project has undertaken, primarily using since-advanced or no-longer-withheld DNA evidence, they have cleared 43 percent of the convicts who have written them. They have reaffirmed the guilt of 42 percent. I doubt the letters of the unvindicated who wrote, begging for a fresh look at the evidence, seemed any less sincere.

In 1989, New York was a majority-white city; it was also very dangerous. Now, it is much less white, and far safer. Many New Yorkers at the time would have guessed the first development; few the second. Only two of the more grandstanding public figures from Central Park case remain on the scene. When Mayor Koch and Cardinal O’Connor cautioned against “rancor and hate,” Donald Trump took out full-page ads in the papers to disagree, demanding that the death penalty be reinstated, even if it never would have applied to juveniles who hadn’t killed anyone. Reverend Al Sharpton stood by the Five, although most of his coverage in the Times then had to do with fallout from the Tawana Brawley fraud, and his trial for stealing $250,000 from a phony charity. Later that year, he was also tried for tax evasion, and was ultimately acquitted in both cases. He acknowledged the dangers of reflexively claiming that racism explained any given prosecution: “In the long run you may be making a martyr out of a bum.''

In the second Mitchell trial, Skoller made a wonderful summation on the theme of coincidence, listing the mounting circumstances pointing to the defendant’s guilt, from how he knew the victim, and her house, to his admissions to the police and a news crew, and his friend’s confirmation of his confession, and the corroborating account of the bus driver, describing his clothing, his behavior, and the cut on his hand. His last line was, “Barbara Jean Kralik was not killed by coincidence!” One astonishing coincidence Burns relates is that a prior victim of Matias Reyes, in the church rape, later became a personal trainer who worked with the Central Park jogger, in the course of her recovery. What are the odds of that happening? The probabilities in the Central Park case are harder to calculate, but they depend on a sequence of something extremely random being followed by something extremely rare. First, you have to believe in the intrusion of a lone-wolf rapist on a wolf-pack crime spree—my apologies for animal imagery, on which Burns dwells at length—an act of lightning-strike unlikeliness; then you have to disbelieve the chaperoned denial of three boys, and the unchaperoned denials of two others, that any such lightning had struck.

Three trials were required to prove the guilt of who killed Barbara Jean Kralik: one of Winston Moseley, and two of Alvin Mitchell. I really wish that there had been a third, civil trial in the Central Park case. That it took 12 years to litigate without one does no credit to the legal system. Matias Reyes would have been cross-examined on his story. On his fight with Wise on Rikers Island in 1990; on his reunion with him in 2001. Inmates who served with Reyes would be called, for what it’s worth, and maybe some would say more about those rumored, threatening letters, and what he’s said about the case since. Or maybe they wouldn’t say anything at all.

Two doctors from Metropolitan Hospital would have been called, one of whom testified at the criminal trial. He would have said, as he did to the Wall Street Journal in 2014, that he thought that there were wounds caused by a sharp-edged instrument, and not just the blunt trauma from the rock and branch admitted to by Reyes. And then they’d go back to Wise’s statement about another boy cutting the victim on the legs, except she wasn’t cut on the legs at all. The other doctor told the Journal that the victim’s legs were swollen with fluid, and showed multiple, distinctively hand-shaped bruises, indicating that several people held her down. And she’d be asked by plaintiff’s counsel why she didn’t note it in the chart. And she’d respond that she’d been trained to treat injuries, not to prove that they existed for lawsuits. And then they’d recall the first doctor, who’d say that he remembered the handprint bruises, and he’d discussed it with the other doctor, but the assumption at the time had been that there were multiple assailants, and no one had asked him about them specifically, either by prosecution or defense. The newer prosecution claim that Reyes committed all of his rapes alone would be challenged by his old defense lawyer. He’d relate that when Reyes sexually assaulted his mother, he’d had a friend with him, who helped.

All of the Five would have testified, and they couldn’t help but do better than the two who took the stand in 1990. In the Burns’ documentary, The Central Park Five, most of them come across as decent, thoughtful, and genuine, though the film itself is agitprop, one-sided and ham-fisted. The boy who exclaimed that Antron did “the murder” might have explained that he’d referred mistakenly to one of the male victims, knocked unconscious, instead of the as-yet-undiscovered jogger. Maybe the cops who testified then wouldn’t have fared as well, this time around. At least a few jurors would be aware of former detective Louis Scarcella, once considered one of the finest investigators in the city, who put several, since-vindicated men in jail, and is facing lawsuits for coerced witness statements and confessions. And the forensic evidence could well say only that the only scientific certainty is that Matias Reyes committed this crime, as it’s said all along.

What is the price of the truth? Maybe the Central Park Five deserved 10 times as much money as they got, or 10 cents on the dollar. Trials are inquiries into allegations of wrongdoing, in which two adversaries argue that their side is right, or at least more right. Members of the public decide, in a public forum. No one is happy with every verdict, any more than they’re happy with the results of every election. Unlike elections, trials are not designed as vehicles to resolve broad social issues, and sometimes they break down under the weight of expectations they cannot bear. But they can shed light on those issues, case by case, especially if it’s the same case, reexamined over time. How racist is our city? How broken is our system? What needs fixing, and what shouldn’t be changed? I don’t know. What I do know is that we spent $41 million dollars to avoid asking these questions instead of trying to answer them.