Few crimes in New York City’s history elicited the public frenzy surrounding the April 19, 1989, attack on Trisha Meili in Central Park. The 28-year-old investment banker was out for a run when she was savagely raped, beaten and left for dead. The assault, pinned on a group of black and Hispanic boys aged 13 to 16 who’d been misbehaving in the park that night, incited media diatribes about civic decay. Circus-like court cases found five of the boys guilty in 1990. Then, in 2002, convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the attack and the five convictions were overturned.
Burns’s deconstruction of how justice was hijacked is part police procedural, part courtroom drama, part cultural critique. It’s riveting, eye-opening and disquieting. Her greatest accomplishment lies in depicting the humanity of characters previously reduced to stereotypes—the five falsely accused as well as Meili, who miraculously recovered.
New York City of the late 1980s was much like the Gotham of comic books—gritty, crime-ridden and riven by class and race divides. Media seized upon the rape of the affluent, white Meili, who was dubbed “the Central Park jogger”; it stoked public fury by referring to the crime as a “wilding” and the suspects as a “wolf pack,” racially charged terms that hearkened back to mob lynchings.
Burns, a civil rights lawyer, deftly reveals how “winning the case trumped investigating the evidence.” Inconsistent DNA findings and contradictions in the boys’ confessions, some extracted in violation of their constitutional rights, were suppressed. Under pressure to punish, lawmakers were wilfully blind to other suspects, including Reyes, a.k.a. the “East Side slasher.” Most stunning was the media and public resistance to Reyes’s confession: so entrenched was the “wilding” narrative that many refused to give it up. Burns is working with her filmmaker father, Ken Burns, on a documentary based on the book whose message in a post 9/11 world is more relevant than ever.