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Certainties and Unlikelihoods

by Mark Goldblatt Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2002 at 4:03 PM

What we know about the Central Park Jogger case.

The Central Park Five are guilty, in the same way O.J. was guilty, in the same way Mumia Abu Jamal was guilty, in the same way Geronimo Pratt was guilty . . . and if you want to understand the racial divide in America, understand this: A segment of the black community, reading these words, will be thinking, Damn straight, they were all framed by racist cops!

So Let’s Start with what’s known.

On the night of April 19, 1989, just after 9 o'clock, it is certain, absolutely certain, that Kevin Richardson, 14, Raymond Santana, 14, Yusef Salaam, 15, Antron McCray, 15, and Kharey Wise, 16, ran amok for a half hour across a quarter-mile stretch of Central Park — chasing after bicyclists, assaulting pedestrians, and (in two separate incidents) pummeling two men into unconsciousness with a metal pipe, stones, punches, and kicks to the head. The teens later confessed on videotape to these attacks — which they couldn't have known about unless they had participated. As recently as this year, Richardson and Santana again acknowledged their roles in these crimes.

It is certain that within that same half-hour, in that same quarter-mile stretch, a woman later known as the Central Park Jogger was struck over the head with a metal pipe or tree branch, stomped, kicked and cut up, and dragged 225 feet across the grass to a ravine — where she was raped and left for dead. (She was actually pronounced dead four hours later, her skull fractured and two-thirds of her blood puddling on the ground.) It's now also certain that Matias Reyes, 19, was present at the scene; Reyes, currently imprisoned for serial rape and murder, has recently confessed to the crime, and his semen has been identified on the jogger's sock.

It is certain that cops, responding to reports of multiple assaults, picked up the five teens — who had split up following their adventures — and that the teens began to implicate one another immediately. At 10:30, riding in a squad car, Richardson blurted out: "Antron did it." The cops didn't know what he was talking about because the jogger's body had not yet been found. When they asked Richardson what he meant, he replied, "The murder." Meanwhile, in another squad car, when a cop scolded Santana that he ought to be at home with his girlfriend rather than in the park terrorizing people, Santana snickered, "I already had mine." Afterwards, in their holding cells, the teens launched into a raucous rendition of Tone Loc's sexually charged hip-hop anthem, "Wild Thing." It was this phrase, misheard by a police reporter as "wilding," which is the genesis of the now-infamous verb.

It is certain, absolutely certain, that the teens confessed to taking part in the rape — they were able to locate the attack and describe the jogger's outfit. Four of their confessions were videotaped, and three confessed with adult relatives present. Each teen sought to minimize his own role: Richardson said he only grabbed the jogger; Santana said he only groped her; Wise said he only "played with" her leg; McCray said he kicked and straddled her but didn't penetrate her; Salaam — whose confession was not videotaped — admitted he struck her in the head with a pipe. The teens differed as to who instigated the attack and who caused the most injuries. These are the prime inconsistencies cited last week by Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau in his recommendation to clear the teens — now grown men who have served their sentences — of all charges.

If the foregoing is absolutely certain, logical questions still remain: The jogger's rape falls smack in the middle of the timeline for the other assaults; it's doubtful the teens would have had sufficient time to gang-rape her, collect themselves, and continue on their violent rampage. Also, no forensic evidence has ever linked them to the rape scene — though Richardson did turn up with grass stains on his underwear. Reyes, moreover, now claims he acted alone, which was his modus operandi in other rapes.

The truth of what happened, as Mayor Bloomberg has conceded, may never be fully known. Perhaps the likeliest scenario is that the teens accosted the jogger, cracked her skull with the pipe, stomped and kicked her, and flung stones at her as she writhed on the ground — if you want an image here, think of Reginald Denny being dragged from his truck and beaten during the Los Angeles riots, except with no good Samaritans around to intercede. After the jogger had stopped moving, the teens likely stripped her and copped their feels, with one or two doing more with her lifeless body, before the group moved on to terrorize other passers-by . . . or maybe they were startled away by Reyes, who heard the commotion, came to have a look, found the unconscious jogger, dragged her down the ravine, and raped her.

Whatever the specifics, the fact that many in the black community now view the Central Park Five as martyrs to a racist legal system, rather than as a source of lasting shame, is a cultural indictment that goes beyond the time served by five lowlife teens.

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