Donald Trump doesn’t acknowledge wrongful convictions proven by DNA and by the credible, delayed confession of a convicted murderer and rapist. Insisting on Friday that the Central Park 5 are guilty of the 1989 high-profile horrific attack and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park, he revealed he knows nothing about DNA, the dynamics of false confessions, or contemporary understandings relating to criminal justice and wrongful convictions.
Shortly after the crime occurred Trump paid thousands to run full-page ads in newspapers calling for reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. The ads fueled a fever pitch of outrage over a crime that had already stunned the nation. His insistence on inserting his opinion could only exacerbate tempers in a difficult time of race relations.
In his statement Friday, Trump revealed he is woefully uneducated in the realities of criminal justice miscarriages. This is frightening when the need for criminal justice reform has reached an awareness level great enough to find a place in both the Republican and Democrat national political platforms.
For those who study wrongful convictions and even for the informed everyday citizen, wrongful convictions are no longer considered a rare, unfortunate event. The National Registry of Exonerations reports today 1,897 known exonerations since 1989, of which 759 were wrongful convictions of murder. Because an exoneration typically takes years, even decades, to achieve, one can only infer that these are just a portion of all wrongful convictions.
DNA was not widely utilized in 1989. No physical evidence linked the Central Park 5 to the crime. However, a forensic scientist said a hair found at the scene was “similar” to one of the teens and that he could say this with reasonable scientific certainty. We have learned that this kind of statement is compelling to a jury but has no reliable probative value. The brutally beaten victim had no memory of the attack. No witness came forward. The Central Park 5 — all between the ages of 14 and 16 — were convicted primarily on confessions that occurred after long police interrogations.
While false confessions are counter-intuitive, we now understand the dynamics that result in the belief by a suspect that falsely confessing is the best option in a Sophie’s choice scenario. We’ve learned that certain individuals are particularly vulnerable to falsely confessing, including young people uneducated in the criminal justice system and interrogation procedures.
Excellent Central Park 5 case summaries published by the National Registry of Exonerations noted that in 2002 Matias Reyes, a man serving a life sentence for a similar attack committed near Central Park just days earlier in 1989, confessed to the attack of the jogger.
Hairs and sperm recovered from the victim were submitted for DNA testing. They matched Reyes as did the similar modus operandi of the two crimes.
In December of 2002, based on this evidence, the Manhattan District Attorney recommended vacating the convictions of the Central Park 5. In 2014, a U.S. District Court Judge approved a settlement of $41 million between New York City and the five men.
In spite of all of this, Donald Trump insists the Central Park 5 are guilty. His unwillingness to acknowledge that he rushed to judgment and that his paid advertising was inflammatory in an already tense time for the city and nation, suggests something worse than ignorance.
A pattern of shooting from the hip, rendering superficial judgments, and rarely acknowledging error or expressing an apology, reveals a candidate for president who has the potential to set back hard-earned advances in criminal justice reforms. Even more frightening, this is the modus operandi he would follow as leader of the free world.