You may recognize the five young men pictured as the convicted rapists in the case known as the Central Park Five or alternatively the Central Park Jogger case. You should also be aware that they eventually were exonerated and fairly recently were awarded a total of $41,000,000 in a settlement with New York City over their wrongful prosecution.

Now you may ask what their circumstances have to do with capital punishment since the victim did not die and there was never any danger of them receiving a death sentence.

The relationship is this. The types of actions that led to their convictions and years spent in prison are precisely the types of actions that have led to death sentences in scores of cases and across many jurisdictions or even nations.

This is quite evident from reading The Myth of The Central Park Five as printed in The Daily Beast. The author is one Edward Conlon, a retired NYPD detective who happens to be a Harvard graduate and whose Irish family has several members of law enforcement.

(More background here)

Coincidentally his last name is shared with Gerard “Gerry” Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, wrongly convicted of Irish Republican Army bombings who was played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the excellent film, In The Name Of The Father. Edward Conlon cites that case as one example of the injustices he discusses.

Conlon writes, at least in part, from his perspective as a detective with extensive interrogation experience. I believe that lends a certain cachet and credibility to his views since he is not an outsider passing judgment. But it also is explicative of the difficulties inherent in being a detective charged with getting to the truth, or at least so much of the truth able to be extracted during a process that will involve many other entities such as prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries as well as the public pressure exerted by numerous elements…mainly, though,… politicians and the media.

Conlon explores a conglomeration of factors that may lead to a wrongful prosecution, then to an even more wrongful conviction that itself far too often leads to death sentences, the truly irreversible part of the system if carried out. You can’t go back and say “Ooops!”

Among these elements he highlights are

  • Racism
  • False confessions
  • Witness coercion
  • Perjury
  • Prosecutorial misconduct, often due to ambition
  • Flawed eyewitness testimony
  • Misleading  or incomplete forensic evidence

Surprisingly racism is not a large part or is totally nonexistent in many of these cases, even perhaps, where there were defendants of color. Police misconduct, especially in the manner and extent of interrogation, plays a huge part. Cop-bashing is not an intent of this piece, but not all the blue bloods are of high character either.

His concentration is not simply on how these elements combined to harm the Central Park defendants. As noted previously he touches on British mistreatment of the Irish in the Guildford and other cases where the government fabricated cases out of whole cloth with what amounted to their own criminality whether they faced their own charges or not.

Along the way Conlon cites examples from such well-known cases  as the West Memphis Three and Kitty Genovese as well as the wrongful conviction depicted in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man starring Henry Fonda.

He also provides a tidbit from his brief tenure as NYPD liaison to the Jordanian National Police. A portion of his responsibilities was to lecture on interrogation techniques.

In collecting material for the bilingual, English-Arabic Power Point slides, clips from The Wire were easier to come by than NYPD curriculum material on interrogations. In researching how to systematically explain the trade I’d learned in an entirely unsystematic way, I came across numerous prescriptions on how to read body language that I knew to be, at best, gross oversimplifications. Some people looked me in the eyes when they lied, and others looked away when they told the truth. One especially pernicious—and persistent—bit of pseudoscience was a diagram of a face, showing that when the eyes look up and to the left, it indicates that a person is imagining, and hence lying, while looking up to the right means they’re remembering. Or it could be the reverse. And it’s reversed again for lefties. I quit trying to use that one early on, since I’d forget which side was which, and watching for eye movements while listening to someone talk, and double-checking to see if they were left-handed made me cross-eyed. But I’d been taught it, and I’d seen the diagrams in squad rooms over the years. Some of the Jordanians were familiar with the premise as well. I told them to throw them away whenever they found them, because they weren’t true. And if a good detective believes that he’s talking to a bad man, he’ll try to keep on talking until he hears something he can use against him.

What you might not expect from a former detective is that Conlon is a big fan of the Innocence Project, though he does cite statistics to show success with exonerations through DNA testing in barely half of their cases.

Now nowhere here does Edward Conlon ever suggest his own support for or opposition to capital punishment. His own belief in that punishment being appropriate may be strong for all I know. However, his portrayal of the haphazard way some convictions, including in capital cases, are procured for all the wrong reasons…most of all innocence…makes its own argument against that penalty.

While some of what he speaks is ancient history in relative terms, there is nothing within our ken of legal procedures today that even hints of improvement or corrective action to ensure these mistakes are not replicated.

In the subject cases and instances of wrongful conviction many of those aggrieved former defendants have been cleared and released from prison. Aside from the fact they will retain lifetime scars that no amount of remuneration can recompense, they can be deemed fortunate only in the sense that they escaped the finality of a death sentence being executed.

If nothing else articles and reports of perpetrated injustices like this should impel one to consider the possibility…nay, the probability…that there are many unfortunates equally innocent who did not escape that finality


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