NEW YORK — For the first time in the decade since a New York court overturned the convictions of five teenagers in the 1989 rape and beating of a woman known as the Central Park Jogger, a New York City elected official has called on the city to settle a $250 million federal civil rights suit brought by the now-grown men.
On Friday, New York City Comptroller John C. Liu said the city’s legal department and lawyers representing the men, known collectively as the Central Park Five, should sit down immediately for settlement talks. Liu cited concerns about mounting and likely multimillion-dollar legal costs in the now 10-year-old case. Similar cases of alleged police misconduct that were settled by the city after far shorter periods of litigation left New York to pay large legal bills and millions of dollars in damages to those harmed.
“As the financial steward of the City, my goal is to ensure that we strike a delicate balance between making those with meritorious claims whole while minimizing taxpayer costs,” Liu said in a statement released after his Harlem press conference. “In the case of the ‘Central Park Five,’ I am extremely concerned that the longer we wait, the more the legal bills mount.”
When queried by a reporter, Liu added that a settlement would also bring a long and notorious period in city history to a close.
“This troubling case has spanned the administrations of four Mayors — Edward Koch, David Dinkins, Rudolph Giuliani, and now Michael Bloomberg,” Liu said in his statement. “In the last year of his third term, Mayor Bloomberg has an historic opportunity to provide closure to all those involved. Let’s hope that 2013 is the year when all parties help close this terrible chapter in our City’s history, so that New Yorkers can finally put an end to the tragic ‘Central Park Five’ saga.”
In a statement from the city’s legal department, also released on Friday, officials denied that police or prosecutors had done anything wrong in the 1989 case.
“As we’ve said before, the City stands by the decisions made by the detectives and prosecutors,” said Celeste Koeleveld, a city lawyer who defends New York in public safety matters. She added, “The charges against the plaintiffs and other youths were based on abundant probable cause, including confessions that withstood intense scrutiny, in full and fair pretrial hearings and at two lengthy public trials, with all of the decisions being affirmed by the appellate courts.”
The Central Park Five have argued repeatedly that they were coerced into offering false confessions after 20 to 30 hours of interrogation during which police officers screamed at them, denied them anything to eat or drink, and fed them information about the crime. No physical evidence was ever found to conclusively link any of the five young men to the crime.
As city comptroller, Liu does not have the authority to force New York to settle the case but does play a role in civil suit settlements. He generally sets a budget for settlement offers and must approve any payout. On Friday, he discussed the need to close the Central Park Five case in mostly financial terms and raised questions about the length of the case.
Concern for the city’s coffers may not have been his only motivation in calling for settlement talks. Liu, an Asian American who is running for mayor in a crowded Democratic field, spent much of 2012 wrestling to keep his campaign on track after his campaign treasurer and a fundraiser were implicated in a fundraising scandal. A witness list in the case against the campaign manager also became public Friday.
Liu made his call for settlement talks in Harlem, not far from the building where most of the black and Latino men convicted in the Central Park Jogger case were raised.
“Certainly I think it enhances Mr. Liu’s standing in the progressive community and the African-American community,” said Ronald L. Kuby, a white civil rights lawyer who represented Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, in his appeal and his effort to avoid registration as a sex offender. “But in all fairness, this is also a welcome call from an elected official.”
“The Central Park Five were done a terrible injustice,” Kuby continued. “It is almost inconceivable what has happened to these men. It was an unspeakable wrong, and the people responsible for it have never admitted they were wrong, much less doing wrong, so what happened today should not be minimized.”
The city’s chief lawyer questioned why someone who has responsibility for New York’s financial health would recommend settling the case.
“We respectfully disagree with the Comptroller’s statements,” said Michael Cardozo, corporation counsel for New York City, in the legal department’s statement. “Indeed, the Comptroller is not privy to any confidential case information, per a court order. This is akin to publishing a budget report while missing half the data … It’s puzzling that the official charged with safeguarding the City’s fisc feels we should not defend the City, especially when we believe no constitutional violations occurred.”
In response to the legal department’s statement, Liu’s office emailed HuffPost: “The reaction from Corporation Counsel is exactly why this matter remains unresolved after 10 years. Shame on the Law Department for not being willing to sit at the negotiating table and finally settle a case that has dragged on for far too long. The Corporation Counsel should know better than anyone that the state of the City’s budget has no bearing on the relative merits of any civil-rights case. The Corporation Counsel misunderstands the duties of the Comptroller, which includes mitigating the City’s financial risks.”
For one of the men mostly deeply affected by the Central Park Jogger case, Liu’s call stands in sharp and meaningful contrast to the position the city has taken for the last quarter-century.
“It definitely caught me, I don’t want to say off-guard, but in a good way — I had chills as I was reading Liu’s statement,” said Salaam, now 38. Salaam was just 15 when he was arrested in the Central Park Jogger case. “To have someone of this magnitude coming out and saying you all need to settle, I think this is going to have a tremendous impact. He’s saying this has been drug out for far too long and there was a wrong here that must be righted.”
After serving seven years in prison for a crime he insists he did not commit, Salaam was released and forced to register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2002, and his name was removed from the sex offender registry. Today he works as a wireless communications administrator.
Any political benefit Liu may gain is well deserved, said Salaam.
On Facebook and Twitter, where Salaam said he communicated with the four men he still refers to as his “co-defendants” and with other friends on Friday, several expressed surprise, joy and something else. He said that some, including individuals who do not live in New York City, closed their tweets, retweets and Facebook posts with the words, “John Liu for Mayor.”
In November, another individual running for the city’s top elected slot, Tom Allon, also called on New York to settle the case.
Salaam does not have a specific settlement figure in mind, he said.
“Understand, this was never about money,” said Salaam. “It’s just that is the only legal means by which a city can acknowledge its wrongs … There’s so much irrevocable damage, there are so many indelible scars that have been placed on us that we will never be able to remove them. So a settlement would just be a good and big gesture for everyone involved. The city would get the opportunity to say, ‘You know what? We messed up, and let’s right this wrong. Let’s put a period at the end of this long story.'”
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