Civil Liberties

Looking Back at the Central Park Five

The "wilding" panic of '89.


Scott McConnell, who was working for the New York Post when the infamous Central Park Five story hit the headlines in 1989, casts a regretful eye back on the case:

Months before the critical Democratic primary, the woman in Central Park was raped. The sheer horror of the crime was eased slightly by the rapid arrest of suspects. Boy, the NYPD was good. There had been, on that warm spring evening, a night of wilding: some 30 youths had descended on the park from Harlem, committing mayhem on the late night reservoir joggers. Some were robbed and beaten, but except for "the jogger" they escaped serious harm.

What few people in the city knew was that the case against the Central Park Five was contrived. The cops got the kids, five of the perhaps eight they had picked up that evening. But they knew they had, in addition to the other robbery and mayhem victims, a woman hovering near death. They needed suspects, confessions. The city needed closure.

The five were young, between 15 and 17, easily confused. The cops separated the five and coaxed individual confessions—each of them, exhausted, gave up a part of the story. Their alibi, had they thought to use it, was that they were in another part of the park half a mile away, assaulting other people. But none of the five thought to use it. In the city, in the journalistic community, and certainly at the Post, no one thought much of the fact that there was no matching DNA evidence with the rape victim. Who knew about such things? They had the confessions, didn't they? Moreover, the only people in the city claiming the kids were innocent were the black press and activists who had already discredited themselves by making false charges, and their slogan–"The Boyfriend Did It"–was hardly likely to appeal to fair-minded people who might have questioned the discrepancies in the prosecutions case.

Soon after the confessions, the boys recanted. But no one believed them. Several months later, a violent serial rapist was arrested. Years later, in prison, he owned up to the jogger assault….

When I saw first photos of the suspects, it struck me they didn't have that blank dead-eyed look that one had learned to associate with teenage murderers. They looked instead kind of normal, as if they could have been classmates in my kids' (private) school. They had parents vouching for them. But we all, at the conservative Post and elsewhere (including even liberal tribunes like the famous Pete Hamill) believed the cops.

Read the whole thing here.