Let the DNA Fit the Crime

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Dominique Nabokov
Central Park, New York City, 1990

Hercule Poirot has an easy time of it. He needs only the logic provided by his “little gray cells” to discern, unerringly, which of the dozen or so guests at the country house or passengers in the sleeping coach have committed the crime, nor is there any doubt that those responsible would be found guilty were a trial to be held. But what is a real-life New York investigative police officer to do when, in a city with a population of four million males, a savage rape has left its victim lying unconscious in a remote spot, permanently unable to recall any detail of the attack? One obvious direction of investigation is to connect it with some other violence that took place near the same place at around the same time.

At around 9:00 in the evening of April 19, 1989, a young woman entered Central Park near the Metropolitan Museum and headed north intent on an evening jog. At about the same time a large group of Latino and black teenagers intent on a macho adventure entered the park at its northeast corner and headed south. It seems very likely from the layout of the paths in the park that the boys’ southward route overlapped with the jogger’s northward way.

After a number of aggressive encounters with passersby including one serious beating, the group slowly broke up and five of them left the park on the west side where they were arrested by the police, to whom their behavior had been reported. Much later, at about 1:30 AM, the blood-drenched body of the raped, half-conscious Patricia Meili was discovered by two passersby not far from where two of the gang’s aggressive encounters had been reported. She has never been able to recall the details of the attack or her attackers. The police investigators made what must have seemed to them an obvious connection. The “Central Park Five” became the center of the rape investigation.1

In dealing with the suspects, the police used the classic “good cop, bad cop” technique. The boys were alternately shouted at and treated sympathetically in order to get them to confess. They were promised that if they confessed they would be allowed to go home. Eventually they all confessed to having observed the rape, either from afar or having held the woman down while another member of the group actually raped her, but none admitted to the rape itself. Their stories were inconsistent with one another and with the actual condition in which the victim’s injured body was found. For example, despite her bloody condition, there were no bloodstains on any of the accused’s clothing. It seems clear that these immature boys, desperate to escape the conditions in which they were held, and perhaps reasoning that they would not, in the end, be held responsible for something they did not do, were willing to give the police what they wanted …

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Letters

Saved by DNA June 7, 2012

  1. 1

    For a remarkable essay that places this set of events and the reactions to it in the social and ideological milieu of New York see Joan Didion’s discussion in ” New York: Sentimental Journeys,” The New York Review, January 17, 1991. Sarah Burns does not mention this brilliant article, which subjected evidence to skeptical analysis and anticipated later revelations.