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Central Park 5 defendants in the courtroom, 1989
Recently elected mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio promised as part of his campaign that he would settle the civil lawsuit against the City of New York for malicious prosecution and wrongful conviction in 1990 of a group of young teenagers—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—known collectively as "The Central Park Five." In February, de Blasio continued to assert the suit would be settled: Mayor de Blasio reaffirms promise to reach 'swift settlement' of $250M Central Park Five lawsuit.
Mayor de Blasio on Tuesday reaffirmed his campaign promise to reach a “swift settlement” of the lawsuit filed by the defendants exonerated in the Central Park jogger case. He spoke as the five defendants gathered outside City Hall calling for a resolution of their damage claim against the city.
“Where is our justice?” asked Raymond Santana, one of the five men who were convicted, then exonerated, in the infamous 1989 case.

“We’re not here to speak about money. We’re here to speak about closure.”

They are still waiting.

It is now spring. It is April. It was in April 19 in 1989 when the five then-young teens—four black and one Latino—were arrested for reportedly raping a jogger in Central Park. It was a case that dominated local, national and international headlines at the time. Donald Trump took out $85,000 worth of full-page ads in the New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post and New York Newsday, screeching, ''Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!''

The month of April evokes memories of another spring far from Central Park in New York City. It was in April of 1931 that the "Scottsboro Boys," as they were called—a group of nine young black men—were put on trial in Alabama, accused of gang-raping two young white women.

In both cases—South and North—injustice and racism were combined with lurid images stoked by the press of sexuality, race and rape, of "negro fiendish brutes" and "wilding" wolfpacks.  

A front-on view of Attorney Samuel Leibowitz, the Scottsboro Boys and the National Guard troops protecting them.
A front-on view of Attorney Samuel Leibowitz, the Scottsboro Boys and National Guard troops protecting them.
Follow me below the fold for more on the history and the continued pursuit of justice.

We often bury history, or fail to link that which is decades in the past to what is more
recent. Without making the linkages, the narrative is blurred and obfuscated. The narrative here is clear and has no regional lines. We cannot point simply to the South and let it be as just another example of "Southern racism." Black children—and especially male ones—have become essentialized as criminals, starting in pre-K. There is no coincidence that the Central Park Five case established "wilding" as a theme defining black criminalized behavior, and we see another repetition of same in recent urban myths of "knockout games" so beloved by Fox News. Or death because of loud music (read black rap music) and language (talkin' back to a white man) in the Michael Dunn murder of Jordan Davis. Or the "hoodie thuggery" of a Trayvon Martin.

When the Central Park Five case was in full-blown "fear the blacks mode" it made front-page headlines. Yet when the case was tossed out, there was barely a whisper, except for the pushback by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly against the fact that the miscarriage of justice might cost NYC a lot of money—250 million dollars worth. I'm not surprised that the Wall Street Journal is continuing that lament.

Let us hope that this miscarriage of justice does not take the same path as that of the Scottsboro boys. It has taken over 82 years. On November 21, 2013, the state of Alabama finally issued the last pardons.

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously during a hearing in Montgomery to issue the pardons to Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright, all of whom were repeatedly convicted of the rapes in the 1930s. “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice,” Gov. Robert J. Bentley said in a statement.

Thursday’s vote brought to an end to a case that yielded two landmark Supreme Court opinions — one about the inclusion of blacks on juries and another about the need for adequate legal representation at trial — but continued to hang over Alabama as an enduring mark of its tainted past. “It’s certainly something that when people hear it, they automatically associate it with the state in a negative manner,” said John Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who helped to prepare the pardon petition. “Alabama has worked as hard as anybody has to make sure that, to the extent that we can amend a legacy that is not flattering, we are trying to do the right things now.”

Others applauded the pardons but said they wanted to see the state consider the lessons of the flawed prosecutions in an era when Alabama has the nation’s third-highest incarceration rate.“I’d like to see my state do more proactive things and get to a point where we don’t have to be correcting mistakes,” said Fred Gray, a civil rights lawyer who represented Rosa Parks in the 1950s and submitted an affidavit endorsing the pardon petition. “We should set up a procedure to prevent it from occurring in the first place, and we just haven’t really done that.”

 

Justice? Those men, long dead and buried, received no justice. The dead can't read pardons. This history is a travesty and a tragedy, which is part of the title of the Oscar-nominated documentary made for PBS over a period of five years by Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman—Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.
In March 1931, a freight train crowded with homeless and jobless hoboes left Chattanooga, Tennessee, bound for points west. A short time after it crossed into Alabama, a fight erupted between two groups of hoboes-one black and one white. The train was stopped by an armed posse in the tiny town of Paint Rock, Alabama. Before anyone knew what had happened, two white women stepped from the shadows of a boxcar to make a shocking accusation: they had been raped by nine black teenagers aboard the train.

So began one of the most significant legal fights of the twentieth century. Before it was over, the Scottsboro affair-so-named for the little Alabama town where the nine were put on trial for their lives-would divide Americans along racial, political, and geographic lines. It would draw North and South into their sharpest conflict since the Civil War, yield two momentous Supreme Court decisions, and give birth to the Civil Rights Movement.

So much has been written in the ensuing years about the case that it is virtually impossible to list it all here. Clarence Norris, the last surviving Scottsboro Boy, died in 1989 in New York City at age 76. He told his story in The last of the Scottsboro boys. Other major histories are Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, by Dan T. Carter, and Harvard historian James Goodman's Stories of Scottsboro.

Book cover Scottsboro, Alabama A Story in Linoleum Cuts By Lin Shi Khan and Tony Perez
Scottsboro, Alabama A Story in Linoleum Cuts
 (NYU Press)
One of the books that is unique is Scottsboro, Alabama:
[W]hich consists of 118 exceptionally powerful linoleum prints, provides a unique graphic history of one of the most infamous, racially-charged episodes in the annals of the American judicial system, and of the racial and class struggle of the time. Originally printed in Seattle in 1935, this hitherto unknown document, of which no other known copies exist, is presented here for the first time. It includes a foreword by Robin D.G. Kelley and an introduction by Andrew H. Lee. Mr. Lee discovered the book as part of a gift to the Tamiment Library by the family of Joe North, an important figure in the Communist Party-USA, and an editor at the seminal left-wing journal, the New Masses.  
There are numerous websites documenting the trials. The most comprehensive is Douglas Linder's, which includes a full bibliography. The two major white figures in the trial were Judge James E. Horton, a southerner of elite status, who ruled against the prevailing winds of lynch mobs and bigotry and overturned the conviction of Haywood Patterson, which cost him his career, and defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz. Two major Supreme Court rulings were made as a result of the Scottboro trials: Powell v. Alabama and Norris v. Alabama.

Decades after the trials were over, the defendants were buried, and the town of Scottsboro had also buried the history, Scottsboro native Shelia Washington led the efforts to establish The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.

The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center commemorates the lives and legacy of nine young African Americans who, in the 1930s, became international symbols of race-based injustice in the American South, and celebrates the positive actions of those of all colors, creeds and origins who have taken a stand against the tyranny of racial oppression. We are committed to advancing reconciliation and healing, and promoting civil rights and an appreciation of cultural diversity worldwide.
While Shelia Washington was fighting for 17 years in the South to bring light to the obscured history of Scottsboro, another battle was being waged by family members, supporters and attorneys for the Central Park Five, and finally in 2002 they had their convictions vacated. I heard the news on Democracy Now (video link), and cheered along with family members who had been fighting for justice since the day they were arrested. Amy Goodman and Juan González talked with the family members, lawyers and defendants.

Convictions and Charges Voided In '89 Central Park Jogger Attack:

Thirteen years after an investment banker jogging in Central Park was savagely beaten, raped and left for dead, a Manhattan judge threw out the convictions yesterday of the five young men who had confessed to attacking the woman on a night of violence that stunned the city and the nation.

In one final, extraordinary ruling that took about five minutes, Justice Charles J. Tejada of State Supreme Court in Manhattan granted recent motions made by defense lawyers and Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, to vacate all convictions against the young men in connection with the jogger attack and a spree of robberies and assaults in the park that night. The judge ruled based on new evidence pointing to another man, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer-rapist who stepped forward in January, as the probable sole attacker of the jogger. He was linked to the rape by DNA and other evidence, as the reliability of the earlier confessions and other trial evidence was cast in doubt.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly reacted yesterday to the judge's decision with a bluntly worded statement that underscored the breach that had opened in recent weeks between the Police Department and the district attorney's office over the case.

Book cover:  The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, by Sarah Burns
The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding,
 by Sarah Burns (Knopf, 2011)
They may have been vindicated, but the next step was a civil suit against New York City, which lagged until serendipity came into play, in the person of Sarah Burns, daughter of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Sarah met two of the Central Park Five back in 2003, when she was a Yale undergrad interning at a law firm that was preparing their civil case. Casting around for a ­senior-thesis topic in American studies, she wound up with a 50-pager on the media’s use of racial tropes in covering the case. Newspapers had coined the dubious term wilding to describe the “wolf pack” of 30-odd kids that had roamed the park that April night, beating and mugging passersby. (Other teens were convicted of lesser crimes; the Five were part of that group but probably not ringleaders.)

After graduation, Sarah went back to the law firm, and married one of her father’s producers, David McMahon. Instead of applying to law school, she decided to turn her college paper into a book.

Ken Burns, known for his documentaries on everything from baseball, the Civil War, to jazz, doesn't come to mind as someone who would automatically champion the Five, but he did.
One of her first readers, Dad, immediately wanted to turn it into a movie, in collaboration with his daughter and son-in-law. [...] They reasoned that a film, especially a Ken Burns production, could help drive home the men’s innocence—which “never got the attention that their guilt did,” as a historian puts it in the movie. One of their most difficult tasks was explaining how five different teens could have confessed to something they knew nothing about. “I had to understand for myself how it happened,” says Sarah, who lives with McMahon in Park Slope. “It’s the hardest part, in some ways, to wrap your head around.” The film details the tricks detectives used—dangling the promise of food, sleep, and home in return for concocted scenes in which the suspects claimed to be minor players, but pointed fingers at each other. “It’s amazingly similar in all these cases,” Sarah says, “the same sort of techniques that are really effective even when you’re innocent.”

Burns has been outspoken about the role of New York City's legal system and its minions.

“They’re so full of shit,” says Ken Burns, railing against lawyers for New York, the city that’s been the glamorous star of so many of his documentaries. “The outrage that I feel comes from the fact that people were readily willing to sacrifice the lives of five young men, that they were expendable, that they’re still stuck in a lie, and that the institutional protectionism continues.” [...]

Burns calls the movie’s underlying subject, race, “the central operating premise of almost everything I’ve done,” but concedes some major departures. “It was entirely appropriate to let the story tell itself,” dispensing with narration.

If you haven't seen the film yet, it is available for purchase from the PBS website, at Amazon, can be streamed and has a Facebook page.

Will there be more cases like this in our future? Sadly—yes.

What can you do?

You can support groups like The Innocence Project, where you can learn more about false confessions, and The Innocence Network, which is:

[A]n affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions.
You can contact Bill de Blasio via webmail, or you can send him a tweet.

Remind him to keep his promise.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Apr 13, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Barriers and Bridges, History for Kossacks, White Privilege Working Group, Prison Watch, Trial Watch, Support the Dream Defenders, and WE NEVER FORGET.

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