Innocent until proven guilty is one of the foundational tenets of American jurisprudence. Even when a person is arrested and jailed for a crime, they are afforded the same presumption of innocence as Ivanka Trump, Jesus Christ, the white people in lotion commercials or any other unblemished, blue-eyed blonde American.
Of course, if you’re black, that doesn’t apply. Just ask the five men who were railroaded, wrongly convicted and finally exonerated (pdf) after serving between 7 and 13 years in prison for the rape and assault of a white investment banker in New York City’s Central Park. The teenagers became known as the “Central Park Five” after they were interrogated for hours by the NYPD without legal representation. During the interrogations, officers lied about the evidence and didn’t record the supposed “confessions” until the boys had been kept awake for two days, according to police documents.
Since their release and exonerations, the members have fought to reform the criminal justice system. Now, three of the members of the Exonerated Five—Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam—are lending their support for a new bill that would outlaw many of the practices that resulted in their false convictions. The advocates are joining with the Innocence Project to support a proposed law that would provide attorneys to underage suspects, compensate the victims of wrongful convictions and prevent police from making false statements to induce confessions.
The New York Daily News reports:
“Nearly 30 years ago, we were imprisoned for a brutal crime we did not commit, and collectively spent decades behind bars for it,” Salaam and Richardson said in a statement to the Daily News. “At the heart of the circumstances that conspired to strip us of our freedom and forever change the trajectory of our lives were false confessions.”
A proposal by state Sen. Zellnor Myrie would bar police from using deception in the interrogation room and ensure courts consider the reliability of a confession before it is admitted as evidence. There is currently nothing stopping a cop from lying when interrogating suspects or using tactics such as expressing sympathy or presenting false evidence.
In 2014, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that police can mislead suspects as long as their actions aren’t “patently coercive.”
The proposed criminal justice reforms package contains a number of improvements to current laws, including:
- Eliminating cash bail for low-level crimes
- Mandating that prosecutors immediately share evidence with victims and their attorneys
- Children arrested without a warrant must be brought to courts instead of police stations
- Local police departments can’t maintain their own DNA databases.
- Underage suspects will be required to consult with an attorney before being questioned
- The police DNA database will only keep the DNA of people who are convicted
- Wrongfully convicted suspects will receive compensation for health care, lost wages child support arrears and housing
Of course, the NYPD opposes these common-sense reforms.
“The NYPD has repeatedly voiced its support for criminal justice reform, but maintains that such reform must be done carefully, and with the inclusion of law enforcement professionals,” said NYPD spokesperson Sergeant Mary Frances O’Donnell, adding that the NYPD’s practices are “permitted by law and comports with all legal standards.”
According to the National Registry of Exoneration, 2,425 people have spent more than 21,000 years in prison since 1989, before they were eventually freed because of erroneous convictions. The Innocence Project notes that 25 percent of its exonerated clients were coerced into false confessions and that 61 percent of the 369 people absolved by the Innocence Project were black.
In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, confessed that he committed the Central Park rape by himself. DNA evidence later matched him to the crime. All five convictions were vacated by the New York Supreme Court on December 19, 2002. In 2014, the city of New York settled a claim against the city by the Exonerated Five for $40 million.
The NYPD, the prosecutor and President Donald Trump still stand by the convictions.
None have apologized.