Trump's Stubbornness on the Central Park Five's Guilt a Warning to Criminal Justice Reformers

Not even DNA evidence can get him to change his mind.


Donald Trump
Keiko Hiromi/Polaris/Newscom

Donald Trump so famously believed in the guilt of five teenagers accused of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989 that he put out full-page advertisements in New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty in the state.

There was no evidence attaching the five young men to the crime, and they were convicted on the basis of confessions coerced after days of interrogations. It wasn't until 2002 that another man (who encountered one of the convicted men in prison) confessed to the crime. DNA evidence (which was not presented in the original trial) matched up. The five boys, now full-grown men, have been exonerated. They've gotten a settlement for $41 million from the city of New York.

Trump still thinks they're guilty. They confessed! The police said they were guilty! That's apparently what Trump recently told CNN in an interview:

"They admitted they were guilty," Trump said this week in a statement to CNN's Miguel Marquez. "The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same."

Since Trump obviously still believes that the Central Park 5 are guilty, it cannot be said he is lying or even misleading. But he is undoubtedly holding steadfast to an opinion in the face of DNA evidence to the contrary and the fact that the Central Park 5 have been exonerated by the legal system.

One wonders if he even knows about the gentleman who confessed. According to the Innocence Project, one of our four people who have been convicted but are later exonerated due to DNA evidence have actually confessed to the crime. There are a whole host of reasons why the boys confessed their own involvement or that of their friends.

Trump's stubborn clinging to his snap conviction of the boys from back in 1989 should be considered a dire warning about any sort of possible criminal justice reform if the man were to become president. Concepts like reduced sentences, eliminating mandatory minimums, ending the unnecessary use of solitary confinement, increased commutations—all of these criminal justice reforms depend on people in positions of authority recognizing that their long-held concepts of judicial punishment are incorrect. In order to reform sentencing for harsher convictions for crimes connected to crack cocaine instead of powder, for example, one has to first acknowledge that the panic over crack cocaine was itself misguided and the overly harsh sentencing has not made the country safer.

But Trump is not willing to countenance the idea that he might have been wrong about the Central Park 5. He insists that the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program in New York City helped reduce crime, though there's no evidence that it did anything of the sort, and crime continued to fall after the program ended.

Trump sees an out-of-control crime crisis where one does not currently exist. Perhaps his unwillingness to believe that these men were innocent of a crime is part of that mindset. Or perhaps it's a reflection of his general unwillingness to acknowledge being wrong. Either way, it's yet another reason to be concerned about how law enforcement policy would look under Trump.