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The Central Park Jogger Case: A Lesson on Wrongful Convictions

May 25, 2011 11:43:11 pm
Comments (6)

By Julia Dahl

A new book and a civil suit have re-focused scrutiny on how New York City police and prosecutors managed to convict the wrong people in one of Americas most notorious rape cases.

At a little before nine o’clock on the evening of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker named Trisha Meili went for a run in New York City’s Central Park. Four hours later, she was found unconscious, bound and bleeding near the center of the north side of the park. She’d been beaten and raped so savagely she lost 75 percent of her blood.

Elsewhere in the park, according to The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, a new book by author Sarah Burns, police arrested a group of five young teenage boys—all black and Latino—who’d been trolling the park that night, committing minor crimes, including pelting joggers with rocks. After hours of interrogation, they all made incriminating statements, and once booked, were dubbed the “Central Park Five.”

At the time, New York was experiencing a record crime wave (in 1989 the city averaged 36 murders a week) and fear pervaded the city. The Central Park Jogger case was a perfect vehicle for that fear, and the media pounced.

The New York Post called for readers to “demand the death penalty” in a full-page editorial a week after the attack. Even the New York Times’ editorial page referred to the boys as a “wolf pack.”

The next summer, writes Burns, despite the fact that none of their DNA matched samples found on Meili, all five were convicted and sent to prison.

But that was just the beginning.

The Real Culprit Confesses

In late 2001, 12 years after the original incident, a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime. Police tested his DNA and found that it matched the sample found on Meili. The following year the boys, now men, were exonerated and later released from prison. Meili, whose name had been withheld for years, eventually recovered from her injuries, and in 2003 she published a book entitled "I Am The Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility."

But nearly 10 years after the exonerations, the case is far from settled. On May 23, Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law held a forum to discuss the case, occasioned by the publication of Burns’ remarkable new book.

The book, and an ongoing civil suit the five have brought against the city, have re-opened a case that divided New Yorkers for more than 20 years—and the passage of time has done little to cool passions. Just last month, the New York Post, in an editorial applauding Mayor Michael Bloomberg for refusing to settle the lawsuit, and defended the “meticulous” police work in the case, despite the fact that then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau threw out the convictions, and that detectives failed to connect Meili’s rape to a similar attack (perpetrated by Reyes) in the area just two days before. The Post called Morgenthau’s move “foolish.”

Burns begs to differ. After years spent interviewing the Central Park Five and pouring over transcripts and other evidence from the case, she believes that Morgenthau’s office finally did the right thing in 2002.

Asked why, despite the exoneration, a newspaper like the Post is still hanging on to the original version of the crime, Burns was blunt: “Just as the NYPD doesn’t want to admit they got it wrong, neither does they Post. They both have some responsibility in what happened here.”

And she’s not alone in her opinion: Barry Scheck, the director of the Innocence Project, assisted in the exoneration and said we have a lot to learn from what the police—and the media— did wrong back in 1989.

Standard Operating Procedure

“It was standard operating procedure back then for police to get a confession, then begin a videotape,” Scheck said. Now, he continued, we know better: “Every interrogation should be videotaped.”

According to Scheck, the New York District Attorney’s Association agrees that videotaping suspects from the moment they are brought in for questioning is the correct reform, but won’t endorse a mandate to do so.

“If this had been mandated [in 1989] they wouldn’t have been able to coerce those confessions from those juveniles,” said Scheck. “There is almost nothing more powerful that can go in front of the jury than a confession… hopefully jurors are becoming more knowledgeable that false confessions are something that happen.”

Cheryl Wills, a reporter for NY1 News, attended the event as part of reporting an upcoming three-part series on the case.

“It’s clear the press smelled blood in the water in 1989,” Willis said. “The taped confessions boosted news ratings and that was all they cared about – not the teenagers caught in the middle. No one even asked, could those statements have been coerced?”

But, she continued, not much has changed: “Even now, with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, once again we see a rush to judgment and anti-French sentiment."

Raymond Sanchez, Jr. and Korey Wise, two of the Central Park Five, attended the event. Sanchez, who was just 14-years-old when he was arrested, interrogated and tried for the rape and beating, served nearly seven years in prison and is now suing the city. Sanchez told The Crime Report that he believes what happened to him can, and will, happen again.

“At the end of the day I hope that people can be human enough to say, ‘We made a mistake, we’re sorry, and we’re going to correct it,’” he said. “Only then can we move forward.”

Julia Dahl is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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Posted by Tsering
Friday, December 07, 2012 10:31

It’s Raymond Santana, nor Raymond Sanchez Jr.

Posted by Ann
Thursday, October 27, 2011 03:12

How can detectives not figure out that two rapes in the same area two days apart might be the same guy? Would someone explain this?

Posted by Gregg Morris
Thursday, August 04, 2011 09:22

Definitely buying the book. Hope Spike Lee or Spielberg does the movie. Or the TV series.

Posted by Donna
Tuesday, May 31, 2011 04:41

Thanks for the info—both above and below. I will add this book to the required reading for the Miscarriages of Justice course that I teach. For more info on wrongful convictions please check out “Wrongly Convicted” by Saundra Westervelt—she also designed and teaches a great course on Wrongful Convictions.

Posted by Rhonda Breed
Tuesday, May 31, 2011 03:54

I know all to well the shortcomings of the judicial system. If you do not have power, influence, and money, you can easily be convicted of a crime you did not commit. This happened to my husband. Thankfully, it was not a crime that required a lengthy prison sentence (he spent 21 and a half months incarcerated, which was very difficult). However, his conviction does require that he register as a sex offender. Most people have no idea how difficult and restricting this is. It’s almost like being in a different kind of prison, often in the position to be convicted again, just for stepping outside the regulations. Where I live, the high school is near many businesses and my husband cannot go to them—the pharmacy I use, a popular restaurant, the local music store, and even the counties medical clinic. He can’t pick up my daughter from school; he can’t own a fire arm; he can’t take his grandchildren to a park; he can’t go see a movie with his family; he can’t go to a fair or carnival; he can’t have a Facebook account; he can’t enjoy the basic freedoms that we expect as Americans.

He was the victim in this case, not the perpetrator, yet he suffers—we all suffer. His conviction hinged on the testimony of a bitter, mentally unstable ex-girlfriend and a pissed off SBI agent. In the end, he was convicted of nine counts of 3rd Degree Sexual Exploitation of a Minor. These were nine images in a temporary Internet file that were downloaded the morning of the search. My husband had a court appointed attorney and the rest is easy to figure out from there. The system failed.

Posted by Diane Seltzer
Friday, May 27, 2011 10:30

Another Wrongful Conviction
Paul Vincent Cortez had a bright future. He grew up in the Bronx with his loving mother, brother and sister. Throughout his childhood, Paul focused intensely on his academics, athletic and theatre interests in hopes of one day being able to support his family and move them out of the Bronx. He earned academic scholarships to the prestigious Buckley School, Poly Prep Country Day School, and Boston University. In 2003, he became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. Paul’s talents extend well beyond academics – he was an aspiring Broadway actor and lead singer of a popular, local New York City band. While chasing his dreams as a thespian and musician, Paul supported himself by working as a trainer at Equinox in Manhattan.
Paul & His Mom


On November 27, 2005, Paul endured the most unthinkable devastation – his girlfriend, Catherine Woods, was found murdered on the floor of her Upper East Side apartment. Police investigators were baffled by this gruesome murder and had no immediate explanation. The first three weeks of the investigation did not yield any relevant witnesses, DNA, surveillance videos or any other illuminating evidence. The day after the murder, Paul Cortez voluntarily spoke to the police in hopes of providing them with information that might help solve the case. Paul was immediately told that because of his relationship with Catherine that he was a prime suspect. After six hours of intense interrogation, Paul desperately wanted the police to find Catherine’s murderer – he wanted to help in any way he could. Paul volunteered his foot prints, allowed the police to photograph his hands and body (which revealed no cuts or wounds), provided his cell phone for inspection, volunteered his DNA, and allowed the police to search his apartment without any sort of warrant. Without any reason or evidence to believe that Paul had committed this crime, the police released Paul and escorted him to his apartment.

With the media hungry to announce a killer on the loose in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world, the police were under incredible scrutiny to produce immediate answers and an arrest. In addition, this made-for-Hollywood scenario featured a fast-rising Manhattan District Attorney looking to capitalize on the high-profile nature of the Catherine Woods murder frenzy. Apparently, informing the media that the investigation lacked any significant breakthroughs was not a viable option.

Instead, much of the personal information that Paul volunteered to the police during his questioning was somehow leaked to the tabloid media a few days after the murder by “anonymous police sources.” With these police leaks, so began the demonizing of Paul Cortez by the New York Post, Daily News, and other sensationalized media. These tabloids published erroneous stories such as “…killer identified on surveillance video” and “Cortez confession letter found.” Although the two statements above were 100% fabricated and not based on anything even remotely close to accurate, the media began to construct the image of Paul Cortez as a twisted madman. Clearly, the District Attorney utilized the media’s court of opinion to help the police construct the story of a killer, rather than search for the true killer. As these tabloid stories pervaded New York City , Paul’s life was immediately turned upside down. He was villainized and unable to go out in public. Reporters began stalking him and his family. His face was plastered across newspapers and television. He became a prisoner in his own apartment and New York City . The media had tried and hung Paul Cortez for this crime before an arrest had even taken place.

Three weeks into the police investigation and in the peak of this media frenzy, the police arrested Paul Cortez on grounds that his fingerprint was found at the scene of the crime. The grounds for this arrest were shocking, especially considering that throughout Paul and Catherine’s thirteen month relationship, Paul left fingerprints throughout her entire apartment.

In addition to mourning the tragic loss of Catherine, Paul was faced with having to prove he was not guilty of causing harm to a person he cared so deeply for. Like so many of us, Paul believed in our legal system and naively thought the truth would be sufficient to ensure his exoneration. Paul and his family underestimated the importance of adequate legal representation needed to prove his innocence. With their extreme financial limitations, the Cortez Family could only afford the cheapest of attorneys. Paul’s assumption was that no attorney could botch the truth. As it turns out, Paul made the mistake of his life by bargain-hunting for legal representation and underestimating the District Attorney’s hunger for any conviction. More specifically, Paul’s attorneys failed to refute the most fundamental facts and the flawed circumstantial case presented by the prosecution.

Below are the pieces of circumstantial evidence that the District Attorney weaved into a story that he was able to successfully sell to the jury. Beneath each piece of evidence is clarification and the illuminating facts. Each individual piece of circumstantial evidence is flawed on its own, and even more implausible when combined into the story crafted by the District Attorney.


* By applying chemicals, the police investigators were able to identify one fingerprint from a wall in Catherine’s bedroom that had blood splattered on it. According to the trial transcripts, the police fingerprint expert stated that this fingerprint “was not visible to the naked eye and only visible when interacted with chemical solutions.” Although the fingerprint on the wall was Paul’s, Paul’s attorneys inexplicably did not call any expert witnesses – not even a fingerprint expert. Paul’s attorneys also failed to ask the police fingerprint expert during cross-examination as to whether such a latent fingerprint could have been left at the time of the murder. These omissions are absolutely unbelievable considering the case hinged on the fingerprint. If Paul’s attorneys would have done something so basic as to call a fingerprint expert to the stand, the expert would have told the jury that because the fingerprint was not visible to the naked eyed without chemical application, the fingerprint existed beneath the blood. Also, if the police fingerprint expert had been competently cross-examined, this same result would have been reached and the jury would have learned that the latent Paul Cortez fingerprint was left on the wall of Catherine’s apartment at some time prior to the murder. More specifically, Paul had been in Catherine’s apartment countless times and surely had fingerprints all over her apartment. The fingerprint that essentially led to Paul’s conviction was a pre-existing fingerprint that had blood splattered on top of it at the time of the murder. In his closing argument and final opportunity to sway the jury’s opinion, the District Attorney went so far as to blatantly manipulate the expert’s testimony by imploring the jury that the fingerprint on Catherine’s wall could only have been left by the killer at the time of the murder. Again, the District Attorney viewed this case about winning and losing – rather than about finding the truth.
* Paul made several phone calls to Catherine on the day of the murder. Some of these phone calls were made from only a few blocks away from her apartment. The prosecution explained to the jury that Paul was a jealous, scorned lover who tried over and over again to speak to Catherine. The prosecution further theorized that Paul was a possessive man unable to handle the repeated rejection and reached a breaking point whereby his rage led him to murder.

Although the prosecution formulated a very riveting story for the jury to absorb, reality did not match this story. Paul was in Catherine’s neighborhood because the Equinox fitness center where he worked was only a few blocks away from Catherine’s apartment. He actually spent most of his waking hours on the Upper East Side . Although Paul and Catherine had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship, they spoke very frequently, but their relationship was not exclusive. In fact, Paul was actually on a date with another woman on the Upper East Side only hours before Catherine’s murder. Also, Paul and Catherine had a history of often calling each other up to 30 times in a single day. Months of Paul and Catherine’s phone records corroborate that 18 phone calls on the day of the murder was not so unusual for them.

Paul had always been extremely nurturing and protective of Catherine. Several months prior to her death, Paul learned that Catherine was endangering herself by working as an exotic dancer. At that time, Paul pleaded with Catherine to find a safer way to support herself. Soon thereafter, an incident occurred at the Gentlemen’s Club where Catherine was compromised and hurt. The night of the incident, Catherine phoned Paul asking for him to come get her and take her home. Paul subsequently phoned Catherine’s father requesting his intervention and help. Unfortunately, Catherine’s choice of employment did not lend itself to safe surroundings. When she was personally endangered, Paul was the one that she reached her hand out to for help. The picture painted by the prosecutor of Paul as a raging madman stalking Catherine outside her apartment is simply so far from the reality of Paul and Catherine’s worlds.

* Since Paul was in high school, he wrote poems and music lyrics in his personal journals. At the time of Paul’s arrest, the police seized twenty-five journals each containing thousands of love poems, songs, sketches of comic book characters, cartoons and his deepest emotional feelings. These journals date back to Paul’s days in high school. Although the police had thousands of pages of Paul’s deepest thoughts from when he was a teenager up until after Catherine’s death, there was not one single reference to Paul wishing harm or wanting to do harm to Catherine Woods, or any other person. At trial, the prosecution isolated ONE song from the thousands of pages of journal entries. The lyrics to the song, “The Killing Machine” were presented to the jury. The prosecution isolated these lyrics and told the jury that Paul is filled with anger and violent thoughts towards women.

In actuality, this song was written in collaboration with one of his band members in August of 2005. More specifically, Paul began having artistic differences with the guitarist of his band Monolith. The guitarist wanted the songs to get darker and Paul’s yoga inspired persona seemed to contrast the band’s hard rock sound. As a result, Paul and the guitarist wrote the song entitled, “The Killing Machine.” The song was a commentary on society’s morbid fascination with sex and violence. However, during the trial, the District Attorney argued that the song showed that Paul had a dark side and was capable of violence. Once again, the District Attorney ignored the thousands of soft poems about love and goodness and inflamed the jury by manipulating the journal entries. Not surprisingly, these song lyrics and other journal entries were leaked to the media several months before trial. Not surprisingly, the tabloid media exaggerated and mis-portrayed these journal entries to the extreme in helping fabricate the construction of Paul Cortez as a madman.

* A size 10 ½ bloody footprint was found at the scene of the crime. It was determined that this footprint was left by a certain style of Sketcher brand boots. At the trial, Spencer, an acquaintance of Paul’s, testified that he was out socially with Paul the night of the murder and that Paul was wearing Sketcher boots. This testimony is incredibly suspect as six months earlier when Spencer was interviewed by CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery, Spencer told the interviewer that he had no recollection of what Paul was wearing that evening, let alone the brand and style of his shoes. Somehow, Paul’s footwear came in greater focus for Spencer fourteen months after the evening in question. Nonetheless, the District Attorney used this very suspect testimony in an attempt to further link Paul Cortez to the crime.

The high-powered District Attorney convinced the jury that Paul was a scorned lover who had a history of violent thoughts and obsessive personality. While in Catherine’s neighborhood, Paul eventually reached his breaking point and committed the murder and left a bloody fingerprint and footprint behind. Although an imaginative theory, the facts simply do not support this story.

Unfortunately, Paul and his family lived pay check to pay check in the Bronx . As a result, they were not able to afford a legal team sufficient for a murder trial. Instead, the Cortez’s family shoestring budget basically got them what they paid for – an incompetent pair of attorneys from up the street in the Bronx who did not show up for several days for the trial and reprimanded repeatedly by the judge. These two lawyers did not set forth much of a defense for Paul. The overwhelming majority of their defense was made up of character witnesses that testified to Paul’s peaceful and gentle ways – his regard for the spiritual side of life and the Buddhist ways he sought to bring tranquility to his existence. Paul’s attorneys did not present any expert witnesses – this is especially shocking considering the importance of the fingerprint and boot print. Despite the media circus that surrounded the case, Paul’s attorneys did not request a sequestered jury. Each night the jurors would go home and subject themselves to the sensationalized media stories, including the most extreme fabrications found each day in the New York Post about Paul and the “evidence.”

Paul Vincent Cortez was convicted of this crime without the presence of any real, concrete evidence against him. Despite such a gruesome murder, not one drop of Paul’s blood was found in the apartment and not one scratch was present on Paul’s body when it was examined. No person (or the surveillance video positioned outside Catherine’s apartment building) saw Paul enter or exit Catherine’s apartment on the night of the murder. Most troubling of all, when Catherine’s body was found, there were several LIGHT-COLORED hairs intertwined in Catherine’s fingers. These hairs did not match those of Paul – he has dark-colored hair. Not only was there no evidence of Paul at the scene of the crime, but there was DNA and hair samples of an unidentified person at the scene of the crime and on Catherine’s mutilated body. Inexplicably, the District Attorney did not do further tests on these hair samples in hopes of finding the killer. Once again, the District Attorney demonstrated that obtaining a rapid conviction took precedence over identifying the real killer. With Paul’s last hopes of freedom now resting on his appeal, Paul has been unable to afford legal representation for appeal. We have identified a team of truly top-notch appellate attorneys who believe that Paul has suffered the greatest of injustices. They have generously agreed to represent Paul in his appeal at a dramatically reduced cost to help give Paul a shot at the justice he deserves.

Unfortunately, innocence is not a guarantee of freedom. Paul found out the hard way that sometimes it takes more than the truth to win. Strong legal representation is often required to defend against such unfair accusations. Paul is paying the price of his freedom because he and his family did not have the resources to afford adequate counsel at trial. Paul now needs your help to make an appeal, retain a competent lawyer and prove his innocence. Even with his attorneys’ generous fee reduction, Paul’s family is unable to further finance the mounting legal expenses. Again, a person’s freedom should not be at risk because one cannot afford competent legal representation and this is why we ask for your help.

Many wonderful friends and family have contributed to Paul’s Defense Fund and these contributions have added up to make a major difference. We are, however, far from what is needed and have to extend a plea for help. We need anyone who could find it in their heart to right this horrific injustice and help give an innocent young man back his life.

Paul Cortez’s life is rotting away in an 8 ft X 6 ft cage. He is dying a slow death for a crime he did not commit. We have lost so much faith in our justice system. If we all come together and lend a hand, we can help give this immensely talented, innocent, good-hearted, special human-being his life back.FREEPAULCORTEZ.COM http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vU3xG
Anything you could suggest or anything you can do to help us gain public knowledge and support for this injustice will be greatly appreciated.
Diane Seltzer

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