before and after the central park jogger

before and after the central park jogger - feature article...

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contexts summer 2005 38 Contexts, Vol. 4, Issue 3, pp. 38-42, ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2005 by the American Sociological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press's Rights and Permissions website, at www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm. feature article lynn chancer In December 2002, a New York City judge vacated five convictions from the highly profiled “Central Park jogger” rape case on the basis of a belated confession. Mathias Reyes, imprisoned upstate for another rape, declared that he had committed the crime alone; his confession was con- firmed by DNA evidence, a form of verification absent in 1989 when a jury convicted a group of minority youths for a gang rape. How did this apparent injustice come to pass, and how easily could a similar problem unfold in other cases? What are the implications of cases like the Central Park jog- ger case for the legal system and for activists who become involved with them? investigating an overturned verdict One response to the “How was it possible?” question is technology-based: Criminal prosecutions were forever trans- formed by the development of DNA testing in the 1990s. Yet, while some New York City prosecutors, police, and media commentators continue to doubt that the convicted youths in the Central Park case were entirely innocent, parties familiar with the case in 1989 were likely to agree that, given the phys- ically brutal character of the crime itself, the original case was notably lacking in forensic evidence. This observation struck me, too, when I started to research this among other high- profile cases. Yes, taped confessions of the eventually con- victed youths had been obtained. But why hadn’t evidence based on clothing, semen identification, or other circumstan- tial matches emerged in 1989 to link the crime definitively to the five defendants? Defense attorneys failed to argue con- vincingly that the confessions obtained were therefore insuf- ficient and conceivably the result of pressure and fear—in a word, coercion. Puzzling over this evidentiary issue led me to a more context-based explanation of the problem in the Central Park case. Perhaps in the politicized environment sur- rounding the case in 1989, the “facts” of the legal case became hard to separate from the social causes the crime came to symbolize. In the 1980s and 1990s several high-profile violent crimes, including the Central Park case, served as vehicles for public debate on issues concerning gender, race, and (to some extent) class discrimination that had been brought into American cul- tural awareness, yet hardly resolved, by social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They turned into what Lisa Cuklanz has called “issue-oriented trials brought to the fore by social move- ments.” These cases fostered a distinctive mode of politicized debate that had at least one advantage for political activists and the news media: Single cases provided larger-than-life narra-
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