On my way into Washington Jewish Week’s newsroom on my first day as editor-in-chief last week, I felt like I was going to throw up.
I was not nervous about meeting my new colleagues or regretting my choice to move here from New York City. On the contrary, I was eager to join this historic news organization, to work with my former Jewish Exponent colleague Joshua Runyan and the talented staff at WJW. For the past seven years, I had divided my time between practicing criminal law (both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney) and writing for magazines. I was ready to commit full time to the news business and, in doing so, to come full circle to my roots in Jewish journalism.
But I had not thought deeply enough about what it would mean to not only work exclusively as a journalist again, but to lead a newsroom. That is, until I was driving down Rockville Pike and heard the news on NPR that New York City’s law department had settled with the five black and Hispanic men, ages 14 to 16 at the time of their arrests, who served between seven and 13 years in prison for the brutal 1989 beating and rape of a 28-year-old female jogger in Central Park—a crime they apparently did not commit. According to The New York Times, the Central Park Five, as the men have come to be known, will receive $40 million from the city, representing $1 million for each year of their incarceration.
It is clear, as Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week, that police and prosecutors committed an “injustice” in this case, notwithstanding the Bloomberg administration’s previous argument in court that authorities had acted in “good faith” and that the charges against the teens had been supported by “abundant probable cause, including confessions.” No physical evidence linked the boys to the scene (DNA found inside the victim and on her sock was later matched to a man named Matias Reyes, a 31-year-old serial rapist unknown to the boys and infamous for gouging out his victims’ eyes), none had a criminal record and their confessions were both disturbingly inconsistent and the product of up to 30 hours of police interrogation that was not videotaped. Only the confessions were recorded. And without those confessions, there essentially was no case.
Jewish law has long disapproved the use of confessions in criminal cases. The Talmud contains no provision for interrogating criminal suspects and holds that “no man may call himself a wrongdoer.” Maimonides argued that confessions should be inadmissible in a Jewish court because of the danger that mentally ill persons might confess to crimes they did not commit as a form of self-punishment. Prominent medieval rabbis, in expressing their own objections to the use of criminal confessions, taught that a person’s body and life belong to God and are not theirs to forfeit. Other scholars worried that confessions might unduly influence the court, leading jurists to ignore or gloss over contradictory evidence.
Here, that is apparently just what happened. Never mind the fact that the victim lost 75 percent of her blood in the bludgeoning and the boys were found with nary a drop on them. They had confessed, and that was good enough for law enforcement, particularly when the city had reached a new apex of violent crime and racial tension.
But the authorities were not the only ones who rushed to judgment. Looking back on the Central Park jogger case, it is clear, says LynNell Hancock, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, that the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five were as much as the fault of the press as the prosecution. In her 2003 article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Hancock explained that news headlines “pumped fear into horror.” New York’s Daily News branded the five suspects a “wolf pack.” The New York Post introduced the term “wilding” to describe the city’s poor youth in an apparent nod to the rampaging gang in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – “packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence.”
Bob Herbert, who would later become a prominent New York Times columnist, used his Daily News column to brand the suspects “teenage mutants.” Pete Hamill, a legendary figure in New York journalism, professed a unique insight into the boys’ minds when he wrote in an April 23, 1989 piece for the Post titled “A Savage Disease,” that the Central Park Five “had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”
While such inflammatory articles and columns hit newspapers “in the heat of the moment,” Hancock notes that they “didn’t end, and none of it was corrected. A year later, when the trial began, the press was still not asking the hard questions about the evidence in the case.”
There were a few journalists who did. Sheryl McCarthy and Nina Bernstein of New York Newsday interviewed the suspects’ teachers, tutors, classmates and parents, revealing that they were considered, variably, “not aggressive, very easy-going,” “a straight-up guy,” and “very shy, very respectable.” But, as Hancock’s study in CJR noted at the time, this act of original reporting did little to stop the runaway momentum of the master narrative the police and press had crafted in unhealthy symbiosis.
Hancock calls this case a “cautionary tale” for journalists, and she is right. It is our responsibility as journalists to get past ourselves – our fears, our biases, our prejudices – when covering a story, even one as fraught with emotion as this one. A trial, as I know from experience, is not about the truth. It is about what can be proved within the confines of the Rules of Evidence. Journalists are not bound by those rules, and can, if they work hard and honestly enough, reveal a clearer picture of important events. As such, we have perhaps an ever fuller mandate as journalists than members of the criminal justice system.
News of the Central Park jogger case may have dampened my spirits as I headed into my first day of work as WJW’s editor. But perhaps it was just the reminder of journalism’s high calling that I needed to hear.