False confessions & the Central Park Five

Have you ever heard of a “false confession”? I had heard the term before but never truly understood what it meant. I thought, ‘why would someone confess to something they didn’t actually do?’ I don’t think I would be wrong to assume that most people think that way as well.

I’m taking a forensic linguistics class where we learn about the different aspects of language in a criminal setting (threats, bribery, confessions, etc.) and yesterday in class we learned that people do actually confess to things they didn’t do. And it happens way more often than would think.

There is one case in particular regarding false confessions that stood out and really effected me: The Central Park Jogger case of 1989.

Five young boys (ages 14-16) were picked up for causing trouble one night in Central Park. But when news came in that a woman was found who had been brutally beaten and raped while jogging, the police quickly pointed their fingers at the boys. They denied being involved, saying they didn’t even know what the police were talking about. The police lied to each boy saying that the others were blaming him. They even said that there was evidence against one of them even though the evidence found at the scene (i.e the semen) did not match any of the boys. But the police wanted someone to blame. This was a crime in Central Park, a place that people thought of as safe and peaceful.

central park five 2They saw these boys for what they were: young, naive, and scared and they convinced them that if they confessed to the crime they could go home. At this point they had been interrogated for hours and were exhausted. The only thing they wanted was to go home. So they did what they were told: they regurgitated the story the police fed to them. They were saying names that the police told them of boys they didn’t even know. One of them said that if they had given him 100 names, he would have wrote down that 100 people were there with him that night.

But instead of going home, they were arrested and charged with the rape and attempted murder of the woman.

In court, they boys plead not guilty. There was no physical evidence to tie them to being there and I even read a report that two of the doctors who treated the woman said that her wounds were not consistent with the boys’ account of the attack. However, there was the confessions. The jury thought the same way most people thought, if they confessed then they did it. They were found guilty.

The four youngest boys, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam served six to seven years in juvenile detention centers while Korey Wise, who was 16 and tried as an adult, served 13 years in actual prison.

Shortly after the case, another man, Matias Reyes, was arrested in New York City for a number of rapes and one murder of a pregnant woman. Thirteen years later, while in prison with Wise, he came forward as the actual rapist. When the evidence that had sat unidentified for years was tested, it turned out it was his.

2012 NYC Doc Festival Closing Night Screening Of "The Central Park Five"
(From left) Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam

The men filed a lawsuit against the city and were each awarded a large sum of money for the years they served but as you can imagine, after 13 years these boys were not the same and no amount of money could ever get them that time back. They were not the innocent 14, 15, and 16 year olds anymore. They had done real time for a crime they did not commit. Santana even did time later in life for drug charges after not being able to get a real job or even function the same way after getting out of the juvenile detention center. His sentence for the drug charges was much longer than it normally would have been because he had a record.

There is a documentary, The Central Park Five, released in 2012 about the case. (The trailer is at the top of this article) I urge everyone to take the time to watch it – it’s on Netflix. This is a story that has completely broken my heart and I don’t know if I will ever get over it. Hearing about this has made me want to do something; help in some way, any way possible.

The fact that this is not the only case where this has happened is the most outrageous part. This is happening everyday. Here, in America. It needs to be stopped.


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