By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Trisha Meili was out jogging in Central Park on April 19, 1989, when she was bound, gagged, raped and beaten nearly to death, a chilling crime to which five teenage boys confessed after hours of interrogation by New York City police.
Whether those confessions, which helped send them to prison before their convictions were overturned in 2002, were coerced by investigators is at the heart of an unresolved $250 million lawsuit that has served as an ugly reminder of questions about race and the justice system that have haunted the so-called "Central Park Jogger" case for almost 24 years.
The civil litigation in Manhattan federal court had inched forward in relative obscurity until a new documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns, "The Central Park Five," now playing in New York theaters, thrust the case back into the spotlight.
The five, now all adults, maintain they were exhausted and confused when they admitted to the crime and that investigators knew the admissions were likely false. Each recanted soon after, and another man confessed years later.
City lawyers, refusing to settle the case, argue the arrests, interrogations and prosecutions were done by the book.
"There was no wrongdoing or malice on the part of the prosecutors or the detectives who conducted the investigation," said Celeste Koeleveld, the city's executive assistant corporation counsel for public safety. "On the contrary, they did solid police work."
The film portrays the five - Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, all black or Hispanic and between 14 and 16 years old at the time - as victims themselves, wrongly accused of raping a white woman and then demonized in a city rife with racial tension.
"They don't want to have to say how they got these confessions," said attorney Jonathan Moore. "If our clients were white and the victim black, this case would have settled a long time ago."
The stakes for both sides go beyond the millions of dollars the men are seeking.
For the city, settling the case could be seen as an admission of wrongdoing. A jury verdict in its favor, meanwhile, would be vindication for a department that has defended its conduct in the case for years.
For the five, the case marks a final chance for a jury to declare them innocent, more than two decades after they were found guilty.
From the start, the rape of a 28-year-old white woman in the park drew intense media coverage and led to the term "wilding" to describe gangs of youths terrorizing random passersby.
The five were convicted in 1990 based on the confessions, delivered after interrogations that in some cases lasted overnight.
Twelve years later, Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist who had attacked a woman in the park two days before Meili's assault, confessed to the crime, and DNA testing tied him to the rape.
In a 2002 report recommending the convictions be vacated, prosecutor Nancy Ryan concluded that the boys' confessions contained "troubling discrepancies" and that Reyes' description of the attack matched the crime scene.
A judge vacated the convictions. By then, however, the boys had already been released after serving sentences ranging from five years to 13 years.
If it goes to trial, the case will again ask a jury to decide what really happened on that April night, this time in light of Reyes' confession.
The New York Police Department maintains the boys could have been involved.
In 2002, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly appointed a panel to produce its own report, which concluded that the boys likely attacked Meili before Reyes did.
Former prosecutor Michael Armstrong, who co-authored the report, said Ryan erred in dismissing the boys' confessions entirely.
"It seems impossible to say that they weren't there at all, because they knew too much," he said in an interview.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said in an email that the report is the "most reliable review of the case out there."
But Sarah Burns, Ken Burns' daughter, who wrote a book on the case, said the report was intended as political cover.
"As far as I can tell, the only people who claim the five had something to do with it have an investment in that outcome," she said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the belief that the boys are guilty is pervasive among the dozens of police officers who have been deposed.
"They protect each other," said Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, a lawyer for the five. "It's always like this."
COERCION OR NOT?
Even if the jury is convinced that Reyes alone committed the crime, the case could turn on the answer to a different question: did investigators coerce confessions they knew were probably false?
That's because in order to prove constitutional violations, it isn't enough to demonstrate innocence. The plaintiffs must also show officers committed deliberate misconduct.
"As a matter of law, this isn't about innocence or guilt," said Koeleveld, the city lawyer.
The city points out that a judge accepted the confessions after reviewing the interrogations during a long pretrial hearing, as did two separate juries.
But Moore, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said if the boys were innocent, it defies logic that they would have offered detailed confessions if police had not told them what to say.
"It's very simple: If Reyes acted alone, by definition everything in these confessions is false," he said. "Those falsehoods had to come from somewhere."
The city has noted the plaintiffs could seek redress under a state law that allows wrongfully convicted defendants to file for compensation in the Court of Claims. Proving misconduct is not necessary; only a showing of unjust imprisonment is needed.
While the burden of proof is lower, the potential damages are correspondingly smaller, and the plaintiffs' lawyers say the injustice goes beyond a simple mistake.
With so much riding on the outcome, both sides have dug in their heels. A trial is unlikely to begin before late next year.
The film itself is a subject of dispute, after the city subpoenaed Burns for outtakes featuring interviews with the five, a request he is fighting.
Meanwhile, Burns and the five have been attending screening of the film, reminding audiences that the case is far from over.
"We just want, I think, what everyone here wants, to have a big period at the end of this story," Burns told an audience in Harlem. "It's not just good for the Central Park Five - it's good for the families, it's good for the city of New York."
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Xavier Briand)