- Defendants in the notorious case were freed 14 years ago
- The case inflamed NYC racial tension and was a cause celebre
Donald Trump stood by his long-held assertion that five men wrongly jailed for more than a decade were guilty of the 1989 rape of a banker jogging in Central Park, despite their exoneration by DNA evidence, another suspect’s confession and a $40 million city settlement.
“They admitted they were guilty,” the Republican presidential candidate told CNN. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Trump’s insistence on the unsupported assertion came after a series of attempts to address race in American life. Last month, he said "a lack of spirit” and “unity” caused tension between black and white Americans. And after years of public doubt, he acknowledged that President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was born in the U.S.
The 1989 crime, which left the 28-year-old victim comatose for 12 days, attracted international media attention and underscored the issue of violent crime in U.S. cities, and in New York in particular. The trial of the five black and Hispanic men -- ages 14 to 16 when they were arrested -- became a decades-long cause celebre heightening racial tension and worsening relations between police and members of New York’s minority communities.
Prosecutors sought in 2002 to throw out the convictions when DNA tests on semen from the victim’s socks linked Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, to the attack. A state judge overturned their convictions and Reyes confessed. In 2014, the city settled the defendants’ civil-rights claims.
Trump publicly insisted the five youths were guilty, and made the affair the occasion for one of his first ventures into politics. On May 1, 1989, less than a month after the April 19 incident, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding the return of the death penalty to quell disorder in a city where “bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter.”
Maya Harris, a senior policy adviser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said, “Trump rushed to judgment on the case, has refused to admit he is wrong and continues to peddle yet another racist lie, a pattern for him and a clear reason why he is unfit to be president.”
Jonathan Moore, an attorney for four of the five defendants, said Trump was ignoring the facts to serve his political interests.
“The only evidence of guilt against the five were the coerced confessions that came about after hours and days of illegal and unlawful questioning of the five young boys,” he said in an e-mail. “What Donald Trump did in 1989 with his full page ad, and what he now does with his campaign, is to appeal to intolerance, hatred and bigotry for his own selfish reasons.”
In a 2014 op-ed article in the New York Daily News, Trump criticized the city for settling the civil-rights lawsuit, calling it “ridiculous,” adding “these young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
The apocalyptic description of urban life was a harbinger of Trump’s rhetoric this year. He has called for "law and order" and widespread use of stop-and-frisk police tactics -- encounters that civil-liberties groups have criticized as ineffective and discriminatory when used disproportionately against minority youth.