December 05, 2002
CENTRAL PARK JOGGER UPDATE: Looks like a rout for the original prosecutors, and a tremendous miscarriage of justice.
I expect the defendants will be happy to get on with their lives, but I want to repeat a point I raised earlier: what kind of compensation is enough to make up for what they went through? Most states provide niggardly compensation for people who are wrongly imprisoned, if they provide any at all, and most freed defendants aren't in a position to negotiate.
I'd like to see a statute providing for substantial (and I mean substantial-according-to-the-standards-of-lawyers-and-Congressmen, not substantial-for-the-hoi-polloi) compensation for innocent people who are imprisoned. A million bucks a year? That's a good place to start.
Any system of justice will sometimes imprison innocent people. You do the best you can to avoid that (or at least you should). But that's no excuse not to try to make them whole when you realize there's been a mistake. That's just as much a legitimate expense as the salaries paid to prosecutors and judges.
UPDATE: Many readers emailed to say that the Central Park joggers are criminals even if they aren't guilty of the rape in question. Well, maybe. Ann Coulter is certainly making this point.
But, you know, even if it's true that doesn't excuse jailing them for a crime that they didn't commit. Meanwhile prosecutorial reader John Kluge writes:
As a prosecutor, the unraveling of the central park jogger case sends chills up my spine. You are never there when police interview a suspect and have no idea what really happens during those interviews. At the same time, once you have a confession, it is virtually impossible not to go forward with the prosecution, especially in a case involving a real victim. Police misconduct in obtaining false confessions puts prosecutors in an impossible position. Imagine if prosecutors had concluded that the confessions were coerced back at the time of trial and not gone forward with the cases. Back then, they didn't have the serial rapist confessing to the crime. A prosecutor not going forward on a brutal gang rape against five youths who gave videotaped confessions would have caused riot. Prosecutors and the entire justice system depends on the integrity of the police conducting interogations of suspects. By the time the case gets to you, the accused already has a lawyer and is not going to talk anymore. The police are usually the only ones who get a crack at interviewing the accused. To think that there is a possiblity that some of the confessions on which I have based convictions may have been false or coerced by police is a truly disturbing thought.
Yes, and it should be. As far as I can tell, there are two solutions to this problem: (1) Require that a lawyer be present whenever the police talk to anyone; or (2) Videotape every second of interaction between suspects and the police. The former is prohibitively difficult -- though why in God's name anyone in custody talks to the police without a lawyer is beyond me. I watch those TV shows where the cops say "bring in a lawyer and the deal's off" and I cringe. But I know it happens in real life.
The second seems quite feasible these days, and the absence of such taping should be sufficient, in my opinion, to make confessions obtained otherwise unadmissible.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Okay, on rereading Ann Coulter after the sudafed took effect, I think she's still mainly arguing that they really are guilty of the rape in question. Meanwhile The Comedian blogs on what it takes to get a conviction overturned in New York.
LAST UPDATE: Justin Katz, like a lot of emailers, thinks I've been suckered by the New York Times on this one. Well, what convinced me was that Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau is reported to believe that the defendants are innocent. Did the Times get that part wrong? Morgenthau is in a position to know a lot more than me, has no incentive to be alarmist about this that I can see, and is a guy that I generally trust. And it's awfully damned hard to get prosecutors to admit error even when it's pretty clear, so when they do admit it, I tend to believe them.