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Central Park Five: Bill Kunstler’s Last Case

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According to the June 19 New York Times, “The five men whose convictions in the brutal 1989 beating and rape of a female jogger in Central Park were later overturned have agreed to a settlement of about $40 million from New York City to resolve a bitterly fought civil rights lawsuit over their arrests and imprisonment in the sensational crime.”

Civil rights attorney William R. Kunstler defended El Sayyida A. Nossair, the man accused (but not convicted of) of killing Meir Kahane, founder of the right-wing Jewish Defense League, and also founder of the even more right-wing Israeli anti-Arab party Kach. I remember leaving Kunstler’s lower Manhattan house one Sunday, on my way to get bagels and the Times, and being greeted by about fifteen JDL members who screamed at me (looking just like Hitlertime Jugend; I photographed them; this is not my historical imagination), “Self-hating Jew, self-hating Jew.” They didn’t know who I was; they didn’t know whether or not I was Jewish; they were just out there in the street, spewing hatred. Only the presence of a few New York City cops, who were clearly embarrassed at having to be part of that circus, let me get our and back into the house with the newspaper and the bagels.

That was ugly, but in all the time I knew Bill the case he got the most heat for from his friends was when he was appellate lawyer for Yousef Salaam, one of the “Central Park Five.”

Today’s Times article said the settlement was “bitterly fought.” That was by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, not by new Mayor Bill de Balsio, who is obviously trying to make this stain on the city go away as quickly as possible. Why did it take so many years? Why did Bloomberg fight this case until his last day in office, insisting that because the cops and prosecutors had gone after these kids “in good faith,” the city could not be held responsible for the theft of their youth? Why did the prosecutor in the case, after the detailed confession from the real villain, Matias Reyes, who had been convicted of rape and murder previously, not back off and say, “We fucked up. Let’s do justice. Let’s do what we can to make this right?”

The Times article refers to “the five men,” but at the time of the event, they were all 14 to 16 years old. For me, that’s not “men,” it’s boys, kids, people we should protect. They got no protection from the City of New York, then or later

The New York City DA’s office has known since December 2002 that the five were innocent. Unambiguous DNA evidence proved that it had been done by Matias Reyes.

Four of the five kids did seven years in prison; one did thirteen years. They are men now; they weren’t when New York’s justice system did to them what the prosecutor said they’d done to the Central Park Jogger.

The justice system, as any lawyer knows, isn’t about guilt or innocence; it’s about winning and losing. The cops hold a kid all night, as in this case, refusing to let him see the family waiting downstairs and whom he is asking to see, or a lawyer, or anybody. They promise that if you just sign here you won’t do any time, you’ll go home with your grandmother. You’re fourteen, you’re scared, you’re exhausted, you trust them, so you sign. The cop who got you to do that suffers no penalty when years later it turns out, as in this case, the kid who had been psychologically tortured all night was, as he insisted until he was worn down, innocent.

That’s why Bill said he was engaged in this case. He told me that. I remember close friends saying, “Rape trumps politics. You shouldn’t be defending this guy.” And Bill saying, “You don’t know that he’s guilty. They didn’t let him talk to anybody. A fourteen-year old kid. Kids have rights too.”

Bill wasn’t simply defending an accused rapist; he was defending the rights of all of us to be treated fairly by a system with almost infinite power. The only thing that protects us from that infinite power are the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.  When the police, the secret agents, feel free to ignore the protections of those Amendments, we are all at risk, not just poor kids of color. All of us. That’s what Bill Kunstler was really about.

The prosecutor, like the cop who has nabbed what he or she believes is a villain , who learns there is exculpatory evidence, who fights to hide or disregard such evidence and fights instead to preserve the honor of the office, suffers no penalty for that huge mistaken effort. The prosecutor has protected the office and is rewarded for that.

Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire, who took office in 2002, the same year the exculpatory evidence was known to the authorities, fought against justice for Central Park Five the entire time he was in office. He incurs no penalty for his disregard for justice either. To whom does he answer? Surely not the victims. Not to the woman savaged in Central Park, whose real violator was ignored by the system, or the five kids whose lives were damaged by the system’s disregard for them as human beings.

Everyone who is in prison says, “I’m doing time.” Talk to someone who has been in prison and ask, “Where were you?” and they say, “I’ve been doing time.” What should be a noun is answered with a verb. There is no way money can compensate for that linguistic shift. You can replace a Honda or a picnic table or a backpack; you cannot replace a year or a decade of someone’s life.

That’s what Bill Kunstler was fighting for, from the first time someone got him to go South and defend bus riders in a place whitefolks thought busses had two zones. He went there, and he never came back.

Bill believed in the justice system. That always amazed, astonished and inspired me. Once, when we were loafing in Oaxaca, I asked him how he felt going up against those juries in the deep South. He said that as long as he could get real evidence in front of a jury, he pretty much believed they’d do the right thing. If he ever stopped believing that, he said, he’d give up law and do something else. I guess he never stopped believing that, because he kept doing law right up to the end.

The hard part was getting the evidence out where people could see it. In the case of the Central Park Five, New York City fought for a long time to keep that from happening. Now, unless someone higher up in government kills this settlement, the people in city government who waged that fight have lost. There is a settlement; money will change hands. But those five kids who are men now lost years of their lives, and money will never buy that back. There are no winners in this sorry story.

And Bill, who died in 1995, turns out to have been right all along.

Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

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