September 6, 2014

Central Park Five Settlement Finalized

The settlement of the Central Park Five civil case, stemming from the arrest of five young men for the violent rape and assault of a young woman, known as the Central Park Jogger, was formally accepted by the court on Friday. (See here). The $41 million settlement was reached some time ago, and I have made my thoughts known previously.

But with the resolution yesterday came a statement by New York City Corporation Counsel that bears some scrutiny. Specifically, Zachary Carter said,

[The settlement for $41 million] should not be construed as an acknowledgment that the convictions of these five plaintiffs were the result of law enforcement misconduct. On the contrary, our review of the record suggests that both the investigating detectives and the assistant district attorneys involved in the case acted reasonably, given the circumstances with which they were confronted on April 19, 1989 and thereafter.

Carter's statement is notable for it's overt support of the police and prosecutors, an attempt to salve the wounds the settlement most definitely opened up at 1 Police Plaza.

It also caught my eye because it's complete bullshit.

Let's back up a bit. By way of background, the City just paid approximately $1 million per year, per plaintiff. That is a much higher annual rate than normal. In contrast, Jabbar Collins settled his federal claims for 16 years imprisonment for $10 million. Yes, he also received $3 million from New York State, but still, he was paid at a lower rate than the Central Park Five.

Well, you say, they have a better case than Collins, right? After all, Bill de Blasio promised to pay them while on the campaign trail. And there's the rub. They most definitely did not have the better case. I'm not saying they should have been convicted or that they shouldn't be paid. But it was a defensible case. The City needed only to establish that the cops and prosecutors did not deliberately frame them, that any errors or missteps were made in good faith or that a reasonable police officer could have believed that these actions would not have violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Yet, de Blasio had made his promise and he stuck to it, even though doing so meant reversing course 180 degrees after years and years of bitter, acrimonious litigation.

As Len Levitt recently wrote,

To win monetary damages, the five had to prove the police and prosecutors were not merely wrong or negligent. They had to prove deliberate abuse and misconduct.
On the contrary, it appeared that on the night of the rape, the five were in another section of the park, “wilding,” or beating up other people. As depicted in their videotaped confessions, they implicated each other without coercion.
The $40 million settlement was the largest on record for a case of wrongful conviction and offended many in the police department, which had conducted its own investigation that raised many of these issues. De Blasio’s unspoken message: I don’t care.

Carter would have you believe that the money was paid because five men spent a collective 41 years in jail for a crime they conclusively did not commit. He would also have you believe that nobody on the side of law enforcement did anything wrong in procuring the convictions, that it was just a perfect storm. Of course, if he believed the latter statement, and thought there was some evidence to support this, the City could have fought this case and quite possibly have won across the board. Yet, the City not only folded, it paid the largest settlement in its history for a case like this.

That's just because the new administration has a heightened sense of fairness and justice, right? Isn't it because they're committed to doing the right thing by people, even if it costs the City millions of dollars? Well, that would be refreshing, and I'm hoping against hope that my skepticism is misplaced.

Ask around our small community of civil rights lawyers and you will hear that it's still business as usual. Philosophically, it's pretty much the same as it was before litigating against the City in the ordinary, run of the mill cases. Sure, de Blasio changed course radically in the Stop and Frisk litigation, the CP 5 case, and the old RNC litigation that had been dragging on for years, but that's just about it. He paid Jabbar Collins, but that doesn't really count, he pretty much had to. Collins was whipping the City in Court and a loss loomed on the horizon.

For those of us that represent anonymous folks, average citizens who are falsely arrested, maltreated, physically abused, and wrongly prosecuted on a small scale, people whose lives are disrupted and turned upside down without cause or justification, and more importantly, without fanfare or public concern, the opposition is just as bitter, just as staunch as it was before.

I'm happy for the Central Park Five. But let's not believe just yet that fairness and justice have swept through City Hall or 1 Police Plaza. With very few exceptions, born of political or legal necessity, it's the same old same old.

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