June 23, 2014

Selective Justice and the Central Park Five

Mayor Bill de Blasio
While running for Mayor, Bill de Blasio promised to settle the Central Park Five's civil case; a long running civil action that flowed from the infamous arrest and prosecution of five teenagers for the brutal rape and assault of a young woman jogging in Central Park. As discussed in this space last week, the attack and the subsequent prosecution exposed deep racial divides in New York. In 2002, twelve years later, then Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau moved to set aside the five convictions, citing compelling evidence that the rape was carried out by another man altogether. The Central Park Five, who had spent years in prison, sued, claiming that the police knowingly elicited false confessions, which were then used to convict them. The litigation ran for more than 10 years, before ending in a $40 million settlement last week.

It was a tremendous victory for the five men, representing a payout (about $1 million/year) that was significantly higher than the City ordinarily agrees to in wrongful prosecution cases. For instance, just a few months ago, the City agreed to pay David Ranta $6.2 million as compensation for his 22 years if imprisonment. To be fair, once de Blasio announced that he would not try the case and stripped the City's lawyers of the leverage of forcing a trial (at which they had meaningful defenses), the outcome was inevitable.

It was my impression that the Mayor wasn't looking to buy his way out of the case at the cheapest possible price. If he wanted to do that, he would have continued to battle up to trial. Instead, in the midst of campaigning for the mayoralty, he announced his intention to pay the five men because it was the "just" thing to do. Thus, getting the best deal possible wasn't really the goal. No, it was to bring justice to an injustice. The cynic in me assumed that this was purely an election season stunt. The civil rights lawyer in me hoped I was wrong, that de Blasio really was interested in using his authority to right wrongs when possible, even if that meant paying more money than the municipal lawyers would ordinarily agree to pay.

Sadly, the cynical me appears once again to be right. In his typically interesting and insightful column today, Len Levitt discusses the problem with the settlement, and asks the question: what about all the other unjust convictions, all the other men and women who were wrongly jailed? Will de Blasio pay them too? So far, it appears that this case was the only one where the Mayor's sense of moral justice guided policy. It's a questionable call, one that suggests politics over principle.

Don't get me wrong; I don't begrudge the Central Park Five their settlement. But if these five men were entitled to a million/year, then what about Jabbar Collins, who lost 16 years of his life to a phony murder charge and unscrupulous prosecutors? Or Fernando Bermudez, who spent 18 years in prison for a shooting he did not commit? The City's lawyers were able to convince a federal judge to dismiss the latter's case earlier this year and will likely prevail on appeal. But if de Blasio is interested in doing justice, shouldn't these men, and others like them (such as those whom Ken Thompson's office has exonerated) be at the front of the line?

On a personal level, I represent two men who were jailed for 11 months each for robberies they denied committing. Eventually they were completely exonerated, and the detective who arrested them and the ADA who prosecuted them have each acknowledged their actual innocence. Yet, the City is continuing to resist anything close to a meaningful settlement. That is not an attack on the City's lawyer handling the case; he is doing his job, which is to protect his client's interests.

But it does give one pause. De Blasio claimed to be putting justice ahead of fiscal prudence, lawyerly restraint, and municipal management, simply because it was the right thing to do. That it now appears to be a one-off event, a singular blip in the face of the City's reflexive hostility to making good on its misdeeds, suggests that de Blasio's play was nothing more than cheap politics. It is also a shameless bit of hucksterism that hints at a more morally shallow man than the civil rights lawyer in me had hoped for.

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