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.