Confessions of Innocent Minds

A&E’s riveting documentary on the Central Park jogger.

When my brother and I were 5 and 7, my mother, an avid reader of detective novels, warned us that in later life we might encounter a sweet lady cop who would say, “The sarge is an old grouch, but you can talk to me.” That was the “good cop/bad cop” method of forcing confessions, and we shouldn’t fall for it. What’s more, she said (as we sat, riveted and perplexed), the police might tell us that our “buddies upstairs had confessed.” But they wouldn’t have. We were not to fall for these tricks. (We were fated to be railroaded, it seemed, but never to be guilty.)

The awesome topos of the police interrogation involves scenarios and iconography that can thrill a child: the bare bulb, the pacing bullies, the exitless and smoke-choked chamber. For years I imagined how, faced with the bulb or the lady, I’d silently wait for a lawyer, take the Fifth, and never crack.

On Wednesday night, watching A&E’s The Central Park Jogger Case: What Went Wrong? (part of the channel’s American Justice series), I got a chance to revisit that odd fantasy. The excellent show plays the “confession” videotapes of the so-called Central Park Five, the teenagers who claimed, sort of, to have raped a woman in the park on April 19, 1989. Though the tapes sealed the prosecution’s case against the teens in the early ‘90s—they each did jail time—the tapes are now analyzed in light of what we learned last year: that Trisha Meili, the Central Park jogger, was in fact raped by Matias Reyes, a serial rapist whose DNA, unlike that of the convicts, perfectly matched that found on Meili at the time.

The tapes, which come from only a portion of long interrogations, show teenagers acting tired and vague, but saying for all the world, “That was my first rape” (Kharey Wise); “Anytime she was talking, he was smacking” (Raymond Santana); “We, like, all took turns getting on her” (Antron McCray). It’s tempting to be smug now (“in the afterglow of history,” as James Woods might put it) and think it’s clear that they’re being set up, but each confession sounds convincing.

Nor does A&E indulge in bad faith—it never claims to have known the boys were innocent all along—and the show deserves real credit for that. The producers bring in Steven Drizin, from Northwestern’s law school. He’s identified as an expert on false confession and he admits, “The first time I saw these confessions on tape, I understood why these boys were convicted. You’ve got five boys, sitting calmly and coolly, talking about the brutal rape of a woman and giving some general details about the crime.” The show then goes on to present a responsibly even-handed treatment of the way the case unfolded. In addition to the intriguing tapes of the five teenagers, the program shows a 1989 video on which Reyes confessed to his other rapes. His MO matches well the MO of the Central Park rapist, but no one picked up on that at the time.

It’s satisfying to see all the evidence, and to get to put it together now. Sometimes the truth does come out—and justice is grievously delayed but not entirely denied. In A&E’s recent interview with Yusef Salaam, the only one of the teenagers interrogated who didn’t place himself at the crime, Salaam looks euphoric. “Now inside you can walk with your head up,” he says. “You feel like telling the world, ‘I’m that guy that was convicted of that crime … and was found innocent.’” Only his confident bearing and big smile suggest how great his relief must be.

The Central Park Jogger Case, though it’s got plenty of good verité tape, does indulge its art directors with one recreation, however. Periodically, the show returns to a still life, obviously made to order. The camera pans over an elegant cherry-finished table, lighted distinctively, evoking Vermeer. At the table are two chairs, across from each other. On the table is a single styrofoam cup and a white legal-sized pad of paper covered with cryptic notes. A sharp pencil rests at an angle. Utter darkness surrounds the table. As the camera roves, you can almost sense the godlike presence that, facing you down, would leave you no choice but to confess your crimes—real or imagined.

The videotapes on the show, however, make it plain that the boys who originally confessed to the rape spoke to the police in a well-lighted room—one with a fridge and bulletin board and plenty of furniture. Of course, a suspect can be manipulated and tricked anywhere. But no one yet has turned up evidence that the ‘89 interrogators used even “good cop/bad cop” or “your buddies upstairs have confessed.” Investigators can find no evidence that the interrogation involved any coercion at all. People don’t only confess falsely because they’ve been tricked. False confession, it seems, is not less but more mystifying than my mother once made it seem.