Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Central Park Five: Bill Kunstler’s Last Case

by

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

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 29, 2016
Robert Fisk
The Butcher of Qana: Shimon Peres Was No Peacemaker
James Rose
Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Vice Grip on the Presidential Debates
Daniel Kato
Rethinking the Race over Race: What Clinton Should do Now About ‘Super-Predators’
Peter Certo
Clinton’s Awkward Stumbles on Trade
Fran Shor
Demonizing the Green Party Vote
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Road Rage to the White House
Luke O'Brien
Because We Couldn’t Have Sanders, You’ll Get Trump
Michael J. Sainato
How the Payday Loan Industry is Obstructing Reform
Robert Fantina
You Can’t Have War Without Racism
Gregory Barrett
Bad Theater at the United Nations (Starring Kerry, Power, and Obama
James A Haught
The Long, Long Journey to Female Equality
Thomas Knapp
US Military Aid: Thai-ed to Torture
Jack Smith
Must They be Enemies? Russia, Putin and the US
Gilbert Mercier
Clinton vs Trump: Lesser of Two Evils or the Devil You Know
Tom H. Hastings
Manifesting the Worst Old Norms
George Ella Lyon
This Just in From Rancho Politico
September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Robert Fisk
Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
Gareth Porter
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]