In 1989 a female jogger was beaten senseless, raped and left for dead in New York City's Central Park. Her skull had multiple fractures, her eye socket was crushed, and she lost three quarters of her blood. She survived, but she cannot remember anything about the incident. Within 48 hours of the attack, solely on the basis of confessions obtained by police, five African- and Hispanic-American boys, 14 to 16 years old, were arrested. The crime scene had shown a horrific act but carried no physical traces at all of the defendants. Yet it was easy to understand why detectives, under the glare of a national media spotlight, aggressively interrogated the teenagers, at least some of whom were "wilding" in the park that night.
Four of the confessions were videotaped and later presented at trial. The tapes were compelling, with each of the defendants describing in vivid--though, in many ways, erroneous--detail how the jogger was attacked and what role he had played. One boy reenacted the way he pulled off her running pants. Another said he felt pressured by the others to participate in his "first rape"; he expressed remorse and promised that it would not happen again. After their arrest, the youths recanted these confessions, because they had believed that making a confession would have enabled them to go home. Regardless of the denials, the tapes collectively persuaded police, prosecutors, two trial juries, a city and a nation; the teenagers were convicted and sentenced to prison.
This article was originally published with the title True Crimes, False Confessions.