March 18, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

Botched Investigation, Botched Justice

Next month, Scribner will release "I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility." Upon the book's release, the jogger, whose name has never been printed by a reputable publisher, will go public.

In light of the confession of Matias Reyes, the world now knows that the NYPD and the Manhattan district attorney's office badly botched their investigation into the rape and near murder of the Central Park jogger on April 19, 1989. Most of the attention has focused on whether confessions were coerced from the five adolescent defendants who went to jail for the crime. But the other half of the story is being overlooked now as it was then: Another woman had been brutally raped in Central Park two days before.

The detectives investigating the jogger case were not told of the rape, which the NYPD summarily marked closed when the terrified victim left New York. Neither police nor prosecutors discussed the rape publicly. Had Reyes, an imprisoned murderer and serial rapist, not confessed in January 2002, we would not know today that he was the missing Central Park rapist - of both rapes.

Defense lawyers for the five adolescent defendants had tried to make an issue of the missing rapist. Unidentified DNA (not tied to any of the defendants) meant a rapist was out there, loose in New York, probably committing more rapes and perhaps murder, said the lawyers. They were horribly right.

That spring and summer Reyes freely roamed the streets around Central Park, raping and murdering. Here is the litany of his crimes, by his own account, after his assault on the jogger: On June 11, 1989, he raped, stabbed, and tried to drown a 24-year-old woman in her apartment on 116th Street. On June 14, he raped and stabbed to death a pregnant woman in her apartment on 97th and Madison while her three children were locked in the next room. On July 19, he raped and robbed a 20-year-old woman in her apartment on 95th Street and Madison, also cutting her eyes. On July 27, he robbed and tried to rape a woman in the hallway of a building on 95th and Lexington but was stopped by neighbors. On August 5, he raped and robbed a 24-year-old woman in her apartment on 91st Street. His rape spree ended when neighbors who heard this last woman's screams seized him - no thanks to police work or the district attorney's office.

We now have two official documents analyzing the Central Park jogger case: a 58-page court filing from the Manhattan district attorney's office, and a report from a panel appointed by the police commissioner to study the correctness of police procedures. Buried in both reports are facts and statements that ought to make New Yorkers doubt reassurances from officials that there has been fundamental reform.

The report from the NYPD's three-lawyer panel, for example, blandly justifies neglect of the first rape, saying, "If, at the time, it had occurred to either the police or the prosecutors that the April 19 th rape might have been committed by the same individual that had raped someone on April 17 th, it would have been simple to compare the DNA recovered from the jogger against that of the defendant they now had in custody. But, the police and the District Attorney's office had a set of confessions and were satisfied that the defendants perpetrated the attack on the jogger."

This may be the most notorious instance of "satisficing" since Herbert Simon invented the term in the 1950s. The cops and prosecutors - the two agencies are equally culpable - halted the search at the first solution that seemed to work. In Simon's words, they expended only the effort necessary for a satisfactory decision. They satisficed, and Reyes remained free.

The panel goes on to claim, "Today's case review methods would substantially increase the probability of identifying cases with seemingly very few similarities." Maybe. An uncorrected, and seldom discussed, problem in the NYPD is that it is "one of the most technologically bereft departments" in the country, according to former police commissioner William Bratton.

Of the NYPD's 65 databases, only two - the complaint and arrest databases - have been linked into a system that can be queried and searched simultaneously. According to Baseline Review, which studied the NYPD last year, the other 63 databases must be searched separately. Searches to link data in a complex case can take hours, even days.

The essence of brilliant police work is to see the patterns in seemingly unrelated pieces of evidence, patterns that can often be uncovered by computers. Without linked databases, many clues will be overlooked and cases remain unsolved.

Even making all crime information searchable in a unified database is not enough, however. Cases have to be kept open. Without saying a critical word about the police or prosecutors, the document filed in court by the district attorney's office exposes a pattern of bureaucratic indifference when it lists some of Reyes's known rapes followed by the notation "marked closed." These cases were not closed because they were solved; they were closed because the investigators decided not to pursue them even as Reyes continued to rape. And these were not the only rapes disregarded by investigators. A woman who was raped and thrown down an elevator shaft in Harlem the same week as the Central Park assault was shamefully ignored.

Many New Yorkers think that the DNA databank set up in 1994 thwarts such blunders. That's only partially true. Most information is entered into the database late - or not at all.

Even after federal funds reduce the city's 4,000 case backlog - a backlog that translates into years of delay before the evidence is even scanned - it still takes three to four months to carry out DNA analysis from a crime scene. What's more, rapes beyond the five-year statute of limitations get the lowest priority since these crimes are not prosecutable. Reyes's DNA is almost surely in one of the untested old kits never submitted to the databank. We only know about the rapes he chose to reveal.

And why did Reyes reveal anything? The district attorney contends that he came forward because of his "positive experiences" in prison and his guilt toward the unjustly convicted defendants. The police panel offers a more convincing motivation than altruism: Reyes received a favorable prison assignment. Saying that he was afraid of the defendants, Reyes demanded a transfer back to the Clinton Assessment Programs Prepared Unit (APPU) - from which he'd been expelled in 2001 for fighting. Reyes had spent nine of his 13 years in prison at APPU, which mainly houses notorious inmates who might be targets for inmate abuse. It has only 260 beds and one of the lowest inmate/correction officer ratios in the system. Now he's back there, well rewarded for his testimony.

The ongoing public reevaluation of the jogger case should tell us how and why the criminal justice system malfunctioned so seriously. But this review is being obscured by our racially charged past and our current reluctance to reexamine heinous rapes that never should have happened.