Night and the city

Race, rape, rich versus poor ... Five years on, the case of the 'Central Park Jogger' is still splitting the Big Apple.
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The Independent Online
At 10pm on 19 April 1989, a woman was raped and beaten in New York's Central Park. She was not the first or the last, but she is the one most people remember. The victim, a wealthy young white woman and accomplished athlete with a good job at Salomon Brothers on Wall Street, became known as "The Central Park Jogger". She was attacked by at least nine young men, beaten with a lead pipe and left to die. The crime is still regarded as one of New York's worst.

Five years ago today, five black and Hispanic juveniles, aged 15-17 from a working-class section of Harlem, were found guilty of raping and assaulting the woman. They were each given a sentence of 5 to 10 years, the maximum term for juveniles in New York state. Next week, Raymond Santana will be the first of them to be released from prison.

"The case was the genesis for much of the racial tension that exists in New York City today," says Bill Tatum, editor of the influential Amsterdam News, a community paper published from the black section of Harlem. "I don't think these six young men received a fair trial. It was a legal lynching." Mr Tatum was the only US editor to publish the victim's name. "The white press concealed her identity because she was white and middle class," he says. "A black woman was raped in a Brooklyn park last summer; her name was published everywhere."

"The attack provoked an outcry," says Elizabeth Lederer, an assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and the prosecutor who handled the city's case. "Anybody who had ever used the park felt personally violated."

"There was a hysterical atmosphere," says Michael Joseph, an attorney who defended Antron McCray, one of the youths now in prison. "The NYPD was under enormous pressure to find a target for the city's anger and in the end they framed five young men."

Within hours of the victim's admission to hospital, the police had six suspects. McCray, aged 16, was charged along with Yusef Salaam, 16, Raymond Santana, 15, Kharey Wise, 17, Kevin Richardson, 16, and Steven Lopez, 16. Four were black, two Hispanic. The six were accused of joining up to 30 other youths on a crime spree in the park which was later described as a "wilding". (Lopez was eventually cleared of all charges connected with the rape.)

All but one of the accused made videotaped statements confessing their involvement in the attack. Police sources leaked details to New York newspapers, which wrote that the youths had been laughing and joking in their cells. The confessions became the main evidence against the five.

"I don't say the boys were beaten into confessing," says Peter Rivera, Raymond Santana's lawyer. "Coercion can take many forms. They told my client they had his fingerprints on the jogger's shorts - which was a lie - and that the others had implicated him, which was true. But the two together gave them a powerful weapon to intimidate my client."

DNA testing did not link any of the five defendants to the rape, although physical evidence connected Santana and Richardson to the beating. Semen samples were taken from the victim that belonged to four distinct males, one of whom was the woman's boyfriend. The other three have never been identified. There clearly were other assailants besides those currently in jail.

The jury deliberated for 12 days and Ronald Gold was the last juror to agree with the guilty verdicts. "I had grave doubts about the confessions. I still do," he says. But he rejects the race theory. "The four black jurors found them guilty without hesitation. In the end, I agreed to a guilty verdict because I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I just had to get out of there."

Bill Tatum and other members of the black community doubt that the defendants got adequate representation. Since the trial, three of the six lawyers involved in the defence have been suspended or disbarred. One of the two still practising made errors in court which allowed damning evidence into testimony.

"The case shows how unfair and awful it is to be poor and black," says the Reverend Al Sharpton, a well-known black activist who organised demonstrations outside the courthouse in 1990. "To be black and rich in this country, you can buy the best defence, just like OJ Simpson. I don't know if these young men are innocent, but I do know they were railroaded. The case helped to make all African-Americans more wary of the police."

Elizabeth Lederer denies the case was about race. There are, she says, other lessons: "There's a generation growing up right now which finds sport in committing appalling acts. Every week I have cases which involve juveniles suspected of rape, torture or murder - you name it. Homicides are down in New York City by almost 50 per cent, yet juvenile crime is up in every category. The Central Park case was a warning which we did not heed. I think a section of America's youth is running out of control.

"Juvenile penalties were devised when juveniles committed juvenile crimes," she argues. "These five youths were guilty of almost killing an innocent woman. They should have spent much more time in jail." Ms Lederer has used the case as an example in a bill before the New York legislature which, if passed, will mean stiffer penalties for juvenile offenders.

All of the five who were found guilty are now in adult prisons. According to their families, three have successfully completed high school exams and none has had any disciplinary trouble while in jail. All five refused to be interviewed. Sharrone Salaam, Yusef Salaam's mother, says her son is scared of the media. "He feels they helped to frame him. He has tried to take prison well, but he is bitter."

The victim has never given an interview to the press and she will not break that silence now. She spent six months at the Gaylord rehabilitation clinic in Connecticut before returning to work. Her name is simple and Anglo-Saxon, as befits a woman from an upper-class home outside Pittsburgh. She went to Wellesley College and then she did postgraduate work at Yale. Manhattan is full of high achievers like her, uneasily sacrificing a quieter life in smaller towns for a successful career under the bright lights.

New York has always had great contrasts, wealth rubbing shoulders with poverty. The grand buildings in Midtown Manhattan have uniformed doorman; they are worlds away from the tenements of Harlem, just two miles to the north, where the five convicted youths lived in a grim housing project called Schomberg Plaza.

The Central Park case was a collision of these two worlds, at the very geographical boundary where they meet. The 102nd Street traverse, scene of the attack, is the upper limit of "posh" New York, beyond that it's downhill to the home of hard grind. The timing of the attack, at night, immediately changed the city's priorities.

"We had to make the park safe 24 hours a day, it's so important to New York," says Elizabeth Lederer. "Since 1989 we have increased night-time police patrols and there has been a 60 per cent drop in crime." That has been repeated across New York, where crime rates are at historic lows, although others see racism here as well. "The crime rate is down in the wealthy areas," says Bill Tatum. "But it is rising again now in the poorer neighbourhoods."

That pattern is repeated in Central Park. There have been 11 rapes there since April 1989, but all except one involved homeless women who were sleeping rough. The middle-class people who depend on the park for recreation say they feel a lot safer now.

The Central Park jogger still works at Salomon Brothers. She has only a limited sense of smell, she still limps and her vision remains impaired. She has never recalled any details of the attack, but she has been back to the park. Last month she ran in the New York City marathon with the aid of the Achilles Club, an organisation that helps disabled runners to complete the course.

Any lengthy discussion about Central Park always includes a conversation about "the jogger" and that usually leads to a debate about race, about black and white - the political fault line that still sends daily seismic shocks through this city. Last Friday, a black man walked into a white- run store on 125th Street, opposite Harlem's famed Apollo theatre. Before opening fire with a pistol and detonating a firebomb, he ordered all the blacks to leave. Even so, three black people died in the blaze that followed - two were under 20 years old.

At the Central Park trial, one defendant, Kharey Wise, was shown photographs of the victim's body. He recoiled and moaned, "Oh no, no. ... We went to the park to find trouble, and we found trouble." So did New York. The case reminded everybody that blacks and Hispanics, who make up the majority of the city's population, feel the judicial system discriminates against them. It also reminded New Yorkers how vulnerable they can be to random violence. When shots rang out in Harlem last week, that reminder was heard again.