Trump, get your facts right on Central Park jogger case

By Paul Callan | 10/12/2016, 10:53 a.m.
If Donald Trump really believes in his law and order campaign theme, he had better get his facts straight on ...
Donald Trump and the Central Park 5 CNN photo

How did the Central Park Five end up in the crosshairs of this case in the first place?

The New York tabloids had coined the word "wilding" to describe the activities of a small group of minority youths who were allegedly involved in criminal activity totally unrelated to Meili, and in a different area of the park, that night. The city's high crime rate had caused widespread fear, particularly in the wealthy white communities that bordered all but the northern areas of the park. The residents of those neighborhoods -- and many New Yorkers -- cherished the park as a safe oasis from the often dark and dangerous urban streets in a city descending into what seemed like chaos in the midst of the crack epidemic. The fear and desire for vengeance for this unspeakable violation of one of New York's most cherished assets, Central Park, was palpable and inspired an aggressive police investigation.

The five kids were confined to separate interrogation rooms and in the many hours of questioning to follow were told in essence that the detectives knew they had been in Central Park that night and that they had a choice: They could be witnesses or defendants. When a kid claimed innocence, the detectives, using what was then a standard interrogation technique, would say something to the effect of, "Your buddy in the next room will be going home because he says you did it." The message was clear: You'd better give us something or you are going down for the crime. The kid would then fold, making up a "confession" that put him at the scene, but minimized his personal role. When the swift "investigation" was over, the five kids had given "confessions" that made no sense and often contradicted each other.

The district attorney would face another serious problem prosecuting the case: No DNA was found that could link any of the young men to the scene or the jogger. The use of DNA in investigations, though, was in its early years, and juries didn't yet view it as the Rosetta Stone of criminal culpability. Plus, these tough-looking black and Hispanic kids were in the park, and, as Trump would later say in one of his tweets, they weren't there "playing checkers." But while the questioning and imprisonment of these innocents continued, Reyes roamed the streets free to maim, rape and kill. He wasn't picked up for another four months in connection with his other brutal crimes. Over 12 years later, he would finally admit to being the true and only rapist of the Central Park jogger.

Trump didn't help the situation by running newspaper ads calling for the restoration of the death penalty in New York and suggesting to Larry King that "hate" might be a proper weapon against violent crime. Trump's simplistic approach to crime in 1989 did nothing to achieve justice in the Central Park jogger case. Sadly, it contributed to an atmosphere of hatred and despair that caused five innocent young men to be tried and convicted for crimes they did not commit. Years later, Trump still refuses to admit his error.

Perhaps Trump should pay a visit to Matias Reyes at his upstate New York maximum security prison cell, where he is serving a life sentence, for a consultation regarding violent crime. There Trump may learn that true "law and order" advocates seek above all to put the right person behind bars. It's really the only way to make America both great and safe again.