The videotaped confessions given by the teenage suspects in the Central Park jogger case in 1989 were detailed enough to convince juries to find all five of them guilty with little physical evidence.
The teenagers described how members of the group grabbed the woman's arms and legs, covered her mouth and beat her, and climbed on top of her one by one to rape her. Four of them gave videotaped confessions; one confessed in a statement to police.
But now, 13 years later, a convicted murder-rapist has come forward saying he committed the Central Park rape and was alone at the time. The five, who have all served their prison time, now say they never saw the jogger, did not assault her or see anyone else assaulting her — and that the confessions they gave were false.
The detectives who worked on the case say the confessions were given voluntarily and without coercion, and say they are confident the convictions are valid. However, the Manhattan District Attorney's office is reexamining the case.
Primetime asked two experts who have studied false confessions — Richard Ofshe of the University of California, Berkeley, and Saul Kassin of Williams College — to review the written and videotaped statements in the case.
Kassin said the confessions had the kind of graphic detail that makes them seem convincing at first glance, but added that he often sees such detail in confessions that turn out to be false. "It's very compelling," he said. "It can also be wrong."
Interrogation by Suggestion?
In their confessions, the teenagers seemed to know details of the crime that suggested they must have been at the scene. But the experts told Primetime they often see cases where police — whether they mean to or not — suggest information to suspects.
One method is by asking leading questions. The experts point to 16-year-old Kharey Wise's confession, in which Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer appeared to be guiding his answers. Wise initially said the boys only slapped and punched the jogger, but then Lederer showed him pictures of the victim's injuries and raised the possibility that someone hit her with a rock. She told him that slaps and punches are not enough to cause bleeding and a fractured skull. After more than an hour of questioning, Wise conceded, "It looks like a rock wound."
Lederer then told him: "I don't want you to think you have to say that. But I do want to know what you saw that explains how she got so badly hurt." Wise ended up saying he saw one of his friends, Kevin Richardson, pick up a rock and hit the jogger across the face.
"What you see is Elizabeth Lederer working like mad to try to get these kids to say things that are consistent with the facts as she knows them," said Ofshe. Prosecutors say such techniques are a legitimate way of persuading suspects to disclose what they know.
But worse than that, according to Kassin, is the fact that police brought Wise to the crime scene before he gave his videotaped confession. Wise told Primetime police took him to the site — where there was still blood on the ground — and told him to look at it. Kassin said that was a "flagrant" violation because the point of taking a confession is to get a "free and open narrative" that proves the suspect has firsthand knowledge of the details of the crime.
Another technique the experts said they saw in the Central Park confessions is one they call the "witness story," in which police win a suspect's trust by telling him they do not think he actually committed the crime, just that he saw his friends do it. If he tells police what his friends did, he will be allowed to go home.
The experts noted that none of the teens said that they themselves raped the jogger — just that they saw others do it. Kassin: "If the first person to implicate the others is giving a false statement, and then the first leads to the second, and the first two are used to leverage the third, then certainly you're building a house of cards," said Kassin.
The families of the Central Park suspects say police led them to believe the boys were witnesses, not criminals, and would be allowed to go home once they made their statements. "They played us against each other," said Angela Cuffey, sister of Kevin Richardson. "They played the boys against each other."
Wise told Primetime he initially told police he knew nothing about the jogger. But when police told him that his friends had placed him at the scene, he started making up facts "just to give them what they wanted to hear," he said. He said they told him he would be able to go home after giving his statement, but instead took him to jail. "I fell for it," he said.
Yusef Salaam said the pressure was intense: "Take an individual that's 15 years old and put that individual in a room by themselves with two to four to six officers," he said, "some of them wanting to attack you, others holding them back. Others telling you ... 'You know you gotta tell us something.'" Salaam confessed after just 45 minutes, but some of the boys were questioned for more than two days before confessing.
Police Say Confessions Were Voluntary
The lead detective on the case, Bert Arroyo, says the interrogations were by the book, and that the teenagers gave the confessions voluntarily and without coercion. He denies there is any possibility police or prosecutors fed any information to the boys, even inadvertently.
Arroyo told Primetime that the parents of all the suspects under the age of 16 were present, as required by law: "The parents were present during every bit of the interview." He denied that anyone ever told the teenagers or their parents that they would be able to go home after giving their statements, and noted that the parents signed their sons' statements and gave consent for the videotaped confessions.
The families say police misled them by telling them they regarded their sons as witnesses rather than suspects, and that they could go home after giving statements. "Had we known that they were going to turn around and say that he raped her, do you think we would have let them do a videotape?," said Angela Cuffey.
Expert: Confessions Had 'Glaring Errors'
The two experts also noted that there were inconsistencies in the boys' confessions. Kassin said that while eyewitness accounts often have some inconsistencies, there were "glaring errors" in the Central Park suspects' accounts.
The boys did not agree on who was the first to rape the jogger: Raymond Santana said it was Richardson; Richardson said it was Antron McCray; and McCray said it was Salaam. Wise first said it was Santana, then someone else named Steve.
The teenagers also said the jogger was naked, when in fact she was found with her bra pulled above her breasts. Wise repeatedly said that "Steve" used a knife to cut off the jogger's pants and then to cut her legs. In fact her pants were not cut and her injuries did not come from a knife.
Kassin said he could understand how police made the link between the teenagers' rampage — some of them admit to witnessing a series of robberies and assaults in the park that night — and the rape. "If you believe the person you're coercing is guilty, you can inadvertently coerce a false confession when in fact they're not," he said.