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The Central Park Five: Putting a Value on the Loss of Youth

97258131-580.jpgWith the recent $40 million settlement of the Central Park Five case, I am reminded of one of the unfortunate truths of personal injury law: no matter the figure, a financial award is never a true substitute for the physical, emotional or psychological damages inflicted on the victim.

In April, 1989, five black and Hispanic teenagers aged 14 to 16 were accused of beating and sexually assaulting a white woman on her run through Central Park. The boys’ case played into the racial tensions of the time as well as the widespread fear that the city was being overrun by gangs and hooligans. The boys were given nicknames like “the wolf pack” and “animals” in the papers, and “wilding” became a new verb describing these fearsome actions.

Though each of the Central Park Five, as they came to be known, made incriminating statements to police, they claimed that these had been the result of deceptive interrogation tactics and sleep deprivation. Not one of the boys’ DNA matched what was found at the crime scene.

They were convicted and given lengthy prison sentences. Four of the boys served approximately seven years. Kharey Wise, the oldest of the group, served thirteen. In his time incarcerated Kharey came into contact with another prisoner, serial rapist and convicted killer Matias Reyes.

Though he was serving for unrelated charges, Matias was the actual perpetrator of the Central Park assault. His meeting with Kharey prompted Matias in 2002 to confess to beating and raping the Central Park runner in 1989, and acting alone. After a DNA test tied Matias to the crime, Kharey was released and the Central Park Five were exonerated.

Along with the relief of finally being vindicated, there was a feeling injustice at having been unfairly subjected to shame and punishment for over a decade. The Central Park Five were now men. They had been robbed of their youth along with any hope for a normal life. Together they launched a lawsuit against the city of New York for the police misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions.

For years the Bloomberg administration contested their case, alleging that the police and prosecutors had acted in good faith. It was not until this year, under the leadership of the de Blasio administration, that a settlement was made to right this injustice.So while $40 million, approximately $1 million for each year the boys spent in prison, may seem like a large sum, it’s a poor substitute for a decade lived in shame and an adolescence that will never be regained.

Sources: Davidson, Amy, “Donald Trump and the Central Park Five,” The New Yorker, June 23 2014.

Lestch, Corinne, “‘My childhood was taken from me’: Central Park 5 members still hurting after 25 years of painful labels like ‘wolf-pack,'” Daily News, June 27 2014.

McKinley, James C., and Benjamin Weiser, “In Final Weeks, a Push to Put Bloomberg’s Stamp on Major Legal Cases,” The New York Times, December 25 2013.

Weiser, Benjamin, “5 Exonerated in Central Park Jogger Case Agree to Settle Suit for $40 Million,” The New York Times, June 19 2014.