Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2002 / 25 Tishrei 5763

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Revisiting the 'Jogger' horror | Thirteen years after the grisly crime widely known as "the Central Park jogger case" exploded into national headlines, a stunning confession and a DNA test have reopened the case, along with a lot of old wounds.

The new disclosures also offer us something else: an excellent argument for police to videotape their interrogations of suspects, not just the confessions.

Few who remember the jogger story will ever forget it. Within hours after the blood-covered body of a 28-year-old white woman was found raped and beaten nearly to death in the park on an April, 1989, night, police zeroed in on five black and Hispanic teens. They were among other youths snared in a roundup of a marauding gang that was out "wilding," assaulting and robbing joggers and others in the park, police said.

With its "perp walk" images on network television of minority youths paraded out in handcuffs for allegedly attacking a young Wall Street professional, the jogger case sent an electric jolt through the nerves of a nation that had grown angry, scared and frustrated by race, crime and class resentments.

Enflaming the passions were commentators like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped advise the youthful defendants, and Donald Trump, who bought full-page newspaper ads calling for immediate reinstatement of the death penalty.

The tensions captured a year earlier in Tom Wolfe's best-seller "The Bonfire of the Vanities," with a flair and perceptiveness worthy of Charles Dickens, seemed to boil over in the real-life aftermath of the jogger tragedy.

Now, years after the five youths were convicted and served their sentences for the crime, an imprisoned serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes, 31, has confessed to the crime. He says he acted completely alone.

Two years after the jogger crime, Reyes was convicted and sentenced to 33 years-to-life in prison. Police said he was responsible for at least five rapes, beatings and robberies between the time of the jogger attack and his later arrest.

Reyes credits a religious conversion for his new candor, which came, conveniently enough, after the statute of limitations for his crime in the park had run out.

But, boosting his credibility, police say his DNA matches the semen found on the jogger's sock, which turns out to be the only physical evidence turned up in the case. (A blonde hair follicle found on one suspect and believed at first to belong to the victim turned out to be a mismatch.)

At the time, prosecutors downplayed the glaring fact that their DNA evidence did not match any of the suspects they had turned up. They also downplayed the curious fact that none of their suspects had any blood on their persons, despite the large amount of blood that soaked the scene and the victim's clothing. If they were indeed guilty, they had to be the neatest marauding teenaged boys that history has ever known.

Without hard evidence and with some conflicts in witness accounts, the case rested mainly on the videotaped confessions that were signed by the defendants and their parents, confessions they and their lawyers now say were coerced.

Now lawyers for at least three of those who were convicted are trying to have the verdicts set aside. A judge has given the Manhattan district attorney until Oct. 21 to respond to that motion.

In the meantime, I can only imagine that the police who investigated this case wish they had videotaped not only the confessions but also the interrogations, as numerous judicial reformers wish they and other law enforcers would.

After all, if the police are speaking truthfully when they say they used no unfair coercion, the tape would show it. A judge and jury would be impressed. The complainants would have no case.

That's the side of the videotape argument that gets too little attention. While videotape acts to protect the rights of defendants, it also helps protect police and the prosecution's case from charges like coercion that sometimes sway jurors to decide against an otherwise solid case.

In Minnesota, where the state Supreme Court ordered electronic recording in the early 1990s of police interrogations, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, who oversees prosecutions in Minneapolis and 35 surrounding suburbs, has become an outspoken advocate. It helps defendants, the police and the cause of justice, she says.

"During the past eight years, it has become clear that videotaped interrogations have strengthened the ability of police and prosecutors to secure convictions against the guilty," she wrote in a Washington Post commentary in June. "At the same time they have helped protect the rights of suspects by ensuring the integrity of the criminal justice process."

The counter-argument that the snooping video eye handcuffs police has not held up against the benefits for those states and municipalities that have tried it. More often, police have learned how to improve their techniques by watching the videotapes. Sometimes suspects have revealed lies that otherwise would have been missed but that the tape caught.

Videotaped interrogations was a major recommendation issued by Illinois Governor George Ryan's Commission on Capital Punishment, after an excessive amount of wrongful death-row convictions moved the governor to put a moratorium on executions in the state. It was a wise suggestion that other law enforcement agencies should follow.

Yes, I can only imagine that the police who investigated the Central Park jogger case wish they had videotaped the interrogations. After all, as the old saying goes, if the cops are telling the truth, they would have nothing to hide.

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