In April 1989, a 28-year-old white investment banker was brutally raped while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. The case consumed New Yorkers, who at the time faced more than 1,900 murders annually. On a typical day in 1989, according to the New York Daily News, “New Yorkers reported 9 rapes, 5 murders, 255 robberies and 194 aggravated assaults. Fear wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction; it was a matter of self-preservation.”
In this fear-filled atmosphere, five teenagers were convicted of the attack. In a trial pitting the credibility of the defendants against that of the police, the police won. In pleading not guilty, the teenagers argued that their confessions — which were videotaped — were coerced, and the result of over-lengthy and deceptive interrogations. The “Central Park Five” each served from six to 13 years in prison before serial rapist Matias Reyes' 2002 confession — and irrefutable DNA evidence — confirmed their innocence.
Reyes’ confession prompted a federal civil rights lawsuit by the Central Park Five against New York City. After nearly a decade of fierce litigation, Mayor Bill de Blasio instructed the city’s Law Department to settle. The pact, which awaits approval by a judge, will reportedly total about $40 million.
Could this costly settlement — and more importantly, the incarceration of five innocent young men — have been avoided if police recorded not only the defendants’ confessions, but also their interrogations?
This month, the Justice Department will establish “a presumption” that U.S. attorneys and federal agents electronically record statements of post-arrest interrogations as well as confessions. Set to take effect Friday the policy is designed to align practices across the federal government and bring them in line with the practices of at least 20 states and the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, New York is not one of them.
Lessons from the Central Park Five case should prompt lawmakers to finally pass such legislation. If legislators in Albany are not convinced by appeals for a more effective system of justice — or by the fact that New York’s chief judge, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York City Police Department endorse the practice — they should act to protect taxpayers’ wallets. In an era of state budget tightening, mandating the recording of interrogations would serve as an effective use of technology that saves the state money.
While there are upfront expenses to purchasing and implementing videotaping equipment, there are tremendous long-term cost savings to be reaped. And in New York state, much of these costs would also be offset. For starters, the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, with federal assistance, has already provided more than $2 million to state agencies and counties to support video recording of custodial interrogations. Implementing mandated video-recording in New York City — which has more than half the state’s police officers — would cost about $3 million. The initial investment would be manageable.
These expenditures pale in comparison to the costs of wrongful convictions, which can result in civil lawsuits costing millions of dollars. Examples abound. In February, New York City paid 60-year-old David Ranta $6.4 million after he served 22 years in prison for the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi in 1990. His conviction was overturned after a witness came forward and admitted he was coached to pick the defendant in a lineup. In 2011, Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted for rape and murder in Westchester County, received $6.5 million from his federal civil-rights lawsuit stemming from his wrongful conviction. Even a marginal reduction in wrongful convictions resulting from mandated video-recording could help alleviate these costs.
But most importantly, mandated video-recording of interrogations will further the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system — protecting the innocent. The five innocent teenagers jailed in 1990 lost their youth. And the real perpetrator, free in the community, assaulted other innocent women before being arrested. By promoting transparency, accountability, fiscal prudence, and justice, legislation mandating video-recording of interrogations can restore New York law enforcement’s reputation as the nation’s most effective, trustworthy, and tech-savvy. It’s a no-brainer, and our lawmakers should keep that in mind when they return to Albany.