June 19, 2014

Central Park Jogger Case Reported Settled

Daily News Cover Page following Central Park Jogger Attack
According to the New York Times, the City of New York has reached a tentative settlement with the Central Park Five, the five men wrongly arrested and jailed for the infamous rape of the Central Park Jogger. According to the Times, the City has agreed to pay the men about $40 million, which appears to be about $1 million per year, per plaintiff. It is a stunning turnabout in the long-running, bitterly fought case.

I had previously commented that Mayor de Blasio had put the City's lawyers in a very difficult negotiating spot by announcing his intention to settle the case. Prior to that, the City had vigorously argued that police and prosecutors had done nothing wrong in a constitutional sense, that the guilt or innocence of the Central Park Five was not the issue; rather, it was whether the men could show that the investigating officers and prosecutors had engaged in conduct that they had to know would violate the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Lawyers for the City argued that the arrests were supported by probable cause, pointing to the plaintiffs' confessions, and carefully scrutinized criminal proceedings that resulted in the men's convictions.

It was my belief, in fact, prior to de Blasio's election, that this case would never settle. The City and the NYPD were so heavily invested in defending its conduct, and had fought the case with such aggressive zest, that it seemed impossible that they would turn the requisite 180 degrees necessary to reach a settlement. Certainly, the thought of paying anything of consequence would have been anathema to the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations.

From the outside looking in, this was a very good settlement for the Central Park Five. The rate of compensation is quite high for the City, which virtually never pays at a million/year rate, much less for 40 years in a case that appeared defensible. It was clearly the product of long, hard, quality work by plaintiffs' attorneys, and the tenacity of the plaintiffs, who were aided by a 2012 documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. Indeed, the City may have paid more than it absolutely had to, having already announced that it had no intention of trying the case. As any litigator knows, once your adversary indicates that he doesn't want a trial, you are most definitely in the catbird's seat.

But that isn't the point. The Central Park Jogger case was a seminal moment in the City's history. As the Times says, it "came to symbolize a sense of lawlessness in New York, amid reports of 'wilding' youths and a marauding 'wolf pack' that set its sights on a 28-year-old investment banker who ran in the park many evenings after work." What the Times doesn't say is that these terms were really code words for white fear of young black men. If the victim was a symbol of growing white affluence in the City following the go-go 1980s, when Wall Street salaries and bonuses accelerated gentrification and glorified conspicuous consumption, then the brutal attack was presented as evidence that the barbarians were not just at, but inside the gate.

The arrest and prosecution of the Central Park Five represented closure for some and an open wound for others. When it was later discovered that DNA evidence exonerated the young men, ultimately leading Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau to successfully move to vacate the convictions (albeit 12 years after they were rendered), there were strongly conflicting responses in different parts of the City. The sharply divergent views of the case were visible in the civil litigation, that was fought for years on end.

So the question isn't really whether the City paid more than it had to, but rather simply if the amount is fair compensation for these men, who lost years of their lives to prison and were permanently scarred in the process. For de Blasio, who announced an intention to do the right thing, cost be damned, it appears this was a just payment for closure.

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