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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: A meticulous tale of gross injustice

April 15, 2013

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— From Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” American history is replete with examples of printed words accelerating social justice. Still, from Mathew Brady’s 1862 photo exhibit of “The Dead of Antietam” to the televised fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to the cameras that brought Vietnam into American living rooms, graphic journalism has exercised unique power to open minds and hence shape history. It may do so Tuesday evening when PBS broadcasts “The Central Park Five,” a meticulous narrative of a gross miscarriage of justice.

There were abundant dystopian aspects of New York City in the 1980s when crime, crack and AIDS produced a perfect storm of anxiety about the fraying social fabric. This was the context — a city on edge — when on April 19, 1989, a 28-year- old white woman who worked on Wall Street went for a jog after dark in Central Park. She became a victim of what was immediately called “wilding,” a word probably unknown by the four blacks and one Hispanic, ages 14 to 16, who were arrested and charged with raping her and beating her nearly to death.

After up to 30 hours of separate interrogations by detectives who are paid to be suspicious of suspects, four of the five confessed to a crime they did not commit. Why? Watch this documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns. To see the old videotapes of the interrogations is to understand the dynamic that sent the five to prison in spite of the absence of evidence to bolster a rickety case that consisted entirely of those contradictory confessions.

One of the five recalls his interrogation: “They pulled my father aside. Then my father came back in the room, it was like he just changed. He was like, ‘Listen.’ He was like, ‘Tell these people what they want to hear so you can go home.’ If he just, if he just would’ve stood his ground, I would’ve told the truth. I would’ve stuck to the truth.”

People determined to see every American social problem through the lens of race are missing the fact of class: Would the fates of five frightened, confused, exhausted and skillfully manipulated adolescents — badly represented by counsels, disastrously influenced by unsophisticated and bewildered working-class parents, and all swept up in a prosecutorial and media storm — have been different if their skin had been white? Probably not. Remember, confident, affluent, educated, law-abiding Americans can be reduced to bewilderment by encounters with the IRS or even the local DMV.

What can be done to reduce the chances of miscarriages of justice like the one that robbed the Central Park Five of their youths? Society’s safety depends on determined detectives and tough-minded prosecutors who have the hard-edged skills necessary for coping with nasty people. But society’s adversarial justice system depends on a countervailing cohort of public defenders more able than those on whom the Central Park Five depended. Remember, one reason Chief Justice Earl Warren was a stickler for defendants’ rights was that he had been a district attorney for 14 years and knew what went on in the backrooms of police stations.

One of the five now says: “I lost that sense of, of being youthful and missing the average things of going to school and going to the prom and just, just livin’ like average 14-, 15-year-old kid.” Another says: “I’m always behind. Those years that it took for me, I lost a lot. And even now at the age of 36 where I should be fully in a career, have a house, a car, maybe married, I don’t have any of that stuff. So I’m just here.”

Journalism, like almost every other profession relevant to this case, did not earn any honors. Until now. The only solace to be derived from this sad story is that it now is a story memorably told. A society’s justice system can improve as a result of lurches into officially administered injustice. The dialectic of injustice, then revulsion, then reform often requires the presentation of sympathetic victims to a large audience, which “The Central Park Five” does.

Finally, this recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes, but it is a government program, so ...

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

Comments

Orwell 1 year ago

Guess who wrote this in a column May 1, 1989:

"'There seem,' says a professor described as a specialist in adolescent behavior, 'to have been some socioeconomic factors involved.' Ah.

"Here is what those 'factors' were "involved" in.

"More than 30 boys, most under 16, went 'wilding.' In their rampage, they raped and battered nearly to death a 28-year-old jogger in Central Park near Harlem. They hit her with a pipe, hacked her skull and thighs with a knife, pounded her face with a brick, bound her hands beneath her chin with her bloody sweat shirt, which also served as a gag. Seven or more boys raped her."

If you guessed "George F. Will" you win the Hypocrisy Recognition Prize. It's funny how remarkably sure of himself Will was then, and how equally sure of the exact opposite he is today.

2

Leslie Swearingen 1 year ago

First of all people were scared, and that allowed the detectives to use the methods they did to get the confessions. Second, it was a young, white woman who worked on Wall Street and those facts accelerated the need for a conviction.

The crime was horrible beyond comphrension. I don't know how I would survive such as ordeal, and what kind of a person I would be afterwards. Outrage is understandable.

But, somehow people must learn to overcome fear and outrage, and instead of action on emotion mind, take a step back and look at the facts. I wish there was some way to change the tactics used by the police, especially rogue police who are essentially thugs working behind a badge and a uniform.

The officers who are doing a great job in spite of the circumstances deserve our thanks and respect. They should not abide by the rule that no officer rats out another officer, ever.

1

verity 1 year ago

Could someone explain to me what Will means by ". . . but it is a government program, so ..."?

Sounds to me like a merely gratuitous swipe. But I could be wrong.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year ago

"People determined to see every American social problem through the lens of race are missing the fact of class: Would the fates of five frightened, confused, exhausted and skillfully manipulated adolescents — badly represented by counsels, disastrously influenced by unsophisticated and bewildered working-class parents, and all swept up in a prosecutorial and media storm — have been different if their skin had been white? Probably not."


Outcomes from the criminal justice system most certainly are affected greatly by the class/wealth of those charged, but class isn't the only factor-- poor, minority kids, especially black kids, have a double whammy of class/poverty and race working against them.

3

jafs 1 year ago

What conservative case against the death penalty? Conservatives generally favor the death penalty - it's liberals who argue against it, using exactly the arguments Will makes in this column.

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