D.A. Urges Convictions in Jogger Rape Be Overturned

By Josh Getlin
Times Staff Writer

December 6 2002

NEW YORK -- Manhattan's district attorney, reversing course in a racially incendiary crime, recommended Thursday that a judge overturn the convictions of five black and Latino youths in the notorious 1989 beating and rape of a white jogger in Central Park.

Citing new evidence — and the probability that it could have changed the outcome of the defendants' 1990 trials — Robert J. Morgenthau ignored pleas from members of his own staff who prosecuted the original case and endorsed the account of a serial rapist who claimed that he alone had attacked the 28-year-old woman after dark.

Morgenthau, who issued a statement, said the decision "was the result of an exhaustive investigation" triggered by the confession earlier this year of Matias Reyes, 31, who is serving a life sentence for rape and murder in another case. After investigating Reyes' confession and conducting extensive DNA tests, there is "a probability that if that evidence had been available at trial, the verdicts would have been more favorable to the defendants," the veteran prosecutor said.

The highly unusual recommendation came in response to a motion by lawyers for the five defendants, who had requested that all of the convictions be vacated. Supreme Court Judge Charles Tejada will issue a final decision in the matter by Feb. 6, but it is considered highly unlikely that he will overrule Morgenthau's conclusions.

The five youths, who were 14 to 16 at the time of the crime, were convicted of rape and assault and have since completed prison sentences ranging from seven to 13 years. Although they admitted to the crime in videotaped confessions, their attorneys have long argued that police coerced the statements. Due to the traumatic nature of her injuries, the jogger — who has since recovered and lives in Connecticut — could not remember any details of the attack and was never able to identify those who assaulted her. She is writing a book about her recovery, and has said through a spokeswoman that her only wish is that the truth comes out.

Despite his recent confession, Reyes cannot be prosecuted for the Central Park rape because the statute of limitations has run out, according to prosecutors.

"I thank God for this day, for this victory," said an emotional Angela Cuffee, sister of Kevin Richardson, one of the five defendants, after the release of Morgenthau's 58-page report. "The real story has finally come out, and my little brother has his name back. But, you know, he was just a boy at the time, and he had to grow up in prison."

Deloris Wise, mother of defendant Kharey Wise, said: "I was always a tough and strong mom, so I never cried through all of this. I just wanted to fight back. My boy was innocent, he wanted to be a cop, and look at what all of you did to him. I mean you — the police, the media. You all tried to destroy us, but I always knew that he was not a rapist. He was my little boy. And today, the whole world knows."

Attorneys representing the family were equally blunt, accusing the police and district attorney's office of coercing false confessions. While none has spoken publicly about filing civil lawsuits against the city, the threat of potential litigation — based on allegations of official misconduct — was an unspoken subtext.

However, Morgenthau's report would not appear to give these attorneys much ammunition because it pointedly avoids any criticism of the police investigation and the way prosecutors handled the trials. The prosecutor, a legendary New York figure who has run the Manhattan district attorney's office since 1975, based his entire decision in the case on Matias' confession and other new evidence.

"There is clearly wrongdoing on the part of the police officers in this case," defense attorney Michael Warren said after the decision was released, suggesting that an investigation be launched into the interrogations.

As family members and attorneys were jubilant, some police officials and prosecutors were infuriated. Since the controversy surfaced this year, they had insisted that Reyes' confession about raping the jogger — however accurate it might be — did not exonerate the other defendants.

Linda Fairstein, who headed the sex crimes unit of Morgenthau's office, has said the severity of the jogger's injuries — she had lost nearly 80% of her blood when discovered in a ravine — could not have been caused by just one person.

Looking back at the night of April 19, 1989, an evening when packs of violent teenagers roamed through Central Park, many police officials continue to believe that the basic credibility of the five defendants' confessions has not been seriously undermined.

"This new evidence, all it does is implicate an additional perpetrator," said Michael Palladino, vice president of the Detectives' Endowment Assn. "None of the evidence exonerates or eliminates the additional five; it doesn't change that."

Yet Morgenthau's report may alter the way New York remembers the jogger case. For years, the conventional wisdom was that the athletic, Salomon Bros. banker was set upon by a gang of teenagers who lived in a cluster of nearby Harlem housing projects. The term "wilding" grew out of the appalling attack on her and at least 10 others in the park who were beaten and robbed that night.

During the 1990 trials, prosecutors produced scant physical evidence linking the defendants to the attack. A drop of semen found on one of the jogger's socks did not match the DNA of any of those accused, nor did hair fibers found on several of the defendants' clothing conclusively match the victim. The videotaped confessions — which followed hours of police interrogations — were considered pivotal to the five rape convictions.

The case was considered closed, but that changed in late 2001, when Reyes had a chance encounter with Wise in the Auburn Correctional Facility, an upstate prison, according to Morgenthau's report. After Reyes learned that Wise was still serving time for raping the jogger, he allegedly was overcome with feelings of guilt and sought out prison officials, telling them he had committed the rape alone.

When DNA test results in May linked him positively to the attack, Morgenthau's office commenced an intensive reexamination of more than 15,000 pages of evidence and testimony.

New tests cast light on the case: Hair fibers that had been linked by prosecutors to the jogger and introduced as evidence during the trials, for example, could not be identified with any scientific precision. A rock from the crime scene that allegedly contained her blood was also suspect, based on new testing.

Anticipating criticism that Reyes was a psychopath who could not be trusted, Morgenthau's report noted that he had given investigators a precise description of the crime scene and the nature of the jogger's injuries.

The five defendants, by contrast, had volunteered significantly differing versions of the attack and where it occurred.

Just as important, the district attorney noted, Reyes had credibly confessed to a series of other rapes for which he had never been prosecuted. He described a wave of violent attacks on white women in their 20s, including an assault on a woman in Central Park two days before the attack on the jogger.

All were corroborated by investigators.

Morgenthau told Judge Tejada that, if the five convictions are overturned, his office would not move to retry any of the defendants. Roger Wareham, an attorney for three of those accused, praised that recommendation, and said history will show that the case against the five boys was more about racism than evidence.

"Their only crime," he said, "was being black and Latino in Central Park."
If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives . For information about reprinting this article, go to www.lats.com/rights .