Prosecuting attorneys like to think of themselves as victim advocates. They see the worst society has to offer, and they’re proud of being in the role of protectors who keep monsters away from vulnerable people.
Unfortunately, closing the file on a case is such a high priority that some prosecutors — like some ambitious police detectives — will look the other way when something doesn’t fit.
In 1989, a brutal attack on a New York woman in Central Park enraged the public. The media referred to the near-fatal assault as The Central Park Jogger Case, and the N.Y.P.D. and Manhattan District Attorney were under pressure to make someone pay for that crime.
The attack on the woman — who later identified herself publicly in a 2003 memoir as Trisha Meili — was committed by one man whose identity was not known at that time. However, due to the extent of her injuries, police believed multiple assailants were involved. The investigation resulted in five men being arrested and charged, and those men were nicknamed The Central Park Five.
All five of those men — who were still serving time in prison — were exonerated in 2002, after one separate prison inmate who claimed to be the attacker came forward. DNA evidence handling had been refined by then, and lab work confirmed that the inmate who confessed was the person whose DNA was found at the crime scene. The five men who had been imprisoned for years received large settlements for wrongful prosecution.
The inmate who eventually identified himself as Trisha Meili’s attacker could not be charged because his confession took place after the statute of limitations expired.
Trisha Meili recalled in her memoir that her testimony in court was a small event. The trauma had wiped out her memory of the attack, so she had very little testimony to offer. So, the defendants in that case were convicted on minimal evidence.
In retrospect, it sounds as if pressure from the media and the public resulted in five easy prosecutions. During a crisis — and there was a sense of crisis after Trisha Meili was nearly killed — people want to trust anyone who is in the role of protector. There’s also a quiet threat that public officials won’t be re-elected if voters aren’t satisfied with the result of the investigation.
False prosecutions exploit multiple people. The most obvious injured parties are the defendants. Crime victims, who have already been through hell, are also unfairly burdened if they’re pressured into identifying the wrong suspects and testifying. Trauma sufferers can be malleable when they’re told, “We caught him/her/them.”
It should be added that when the five suspects in the Central Park Jogger case were arrested and eventually convicted, the public’s gullibility was also taken advantage of. The average person in New York City probably wasn’t doubting the guilt of the suspects, and wasn’t considering the possibility that someone involved in that unspeakable act was still running loose.
Today’s local print edition of The New York Times has an article by Michael Wines, describing similar things that have happened repeatedly with prosecutions in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Times report focuses on instances in which prosecutors had exculpatory evidence that wasn’t shared with the defense. Sharing exculpatory evidence is a legal requirement.
The article isn’t clear on whether any of those criminal cases in New Orleans were well-publicized at the time, but what are the odds that the defendants would have been protected by news coverage? The Central Park Five weren’t.