Media Bias at its Ugliest
- "This case [the rape of the Central Park jogger] led to the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York," [law professor Steven] Drizin said. "It was also the first incarnation of the super-predator myth that young black and Latino teenagers are remorseless, cold-hearted individuals who rape and murder people at the drop of a hat."
According to Drizin, the brutal New York rape case led to the rewriting of the juvenile justice code in every state.
- —Chicago Sun-Times, September 19, 2002 (1)
More than once, the media have vilified a generation of youth by using a crime story that later turned out to be a lie. In some cases, reporters should have known they were being lied to. They chose not to see the truth.
In 1989, the media went into a frenzy. A jogger in New York's Central Park had been raped and beaten until she went into a coma, and she was left for dead. Across America, the media announced this savage attack was the work of a "wolf-pack" of juveniles who were "wilding" — a new fad among teenagers, the media informed us, which involved committing as much harm as possible, hurting innocent adults for no reason.
The juveniles arrested for this rape freely admitted their guilt, newspapers told us, and they showed no remorse.
Around the nation, talk radio exploded with cries about the evil of youth today and demanded our government get tougher on teenagers. Adults everywhere demanded curfew laws, executions of juveniles, V-chips, and any measure they could imagine to restrict youth even further or punish youth for being young, for being a member of that tribe of people who like to go wilding and in one case raped that jogger.
Now, 13 years later, it has finally come out that the "wilding" story was a hoax. A jogger was raped and nearly killed, that's true. It is also true the juveniles convicted in this case showed no remorse. The reason they showed no remorse, however, is because they never attacked her.
We now know she was attacked by a single rapist: Matias Reyes, an adult with a history of sex crimes. Reyes' DNA matched the semen left in the victim, and he has now confessed that he, and he alone, attacked the Central Park jogger.
Had reporters not been blinded by bigotry, they might have been more skeptical of the "wilding" story. When these juveniles were put on trial, the evidence presented against them was surprisingly slim. Not a single witness saw these juveniles attack the jogger — not even the jogger herself, who came out of her coma with no memory of the event.
No physical evidence whatsoever linked any of these youths to the crime scene. In fairness to the media, police and prosecutors did lie to reporters about this. Before the trial, for example, authorities told the press they had found hairs on two of the defendants that matched the victim. These hairs were never used in the trial because, in fact, they did not match the victim at all (2). Likewise, DNA tests on the rapist's semen were not used at the trial. Authorities told reporters these DNA tests had been "inconclusive." This was another lie. The DNA tests were very conclusive in ruling out every one of the defendants (3).
The only evidence presented in court was the videotaped confession of each defendant. These confessions were coerced, and anyone who watched the videotapes and knew the facts of the case should have known something was wrong. In defendant Kevin Richardson's confession, for example, Richardson said their victim was wearing shorts (she wasn't) and a tank top (she was wearing a sweatshirt) and said that during the rape, one of his co-defendants tore off her bra (she was still wearing her bra when she was found) (4). Not one of the confessions revealed any true fact that police did not know before the interrogation, which is almost unheard of with truthful confessions.
The father of one of the defendants actually admitted he had helped police terrorize his son into confessing. The media, however, dismissed this as a father who simply loved his son too much to admit the truth. Newsweek wrote at the time, "When Bobby McCray — father of defendant Antron McCray — testified that he had intimidated his son into falsely confessing to police on the night of the attack, it simply didn't ring true" (5). In other words, it didn't fit the stereotypes reporters like to indulge. Reporters love to portray a world full of innocent, loyal parents saddled with evil children. When they find a fact that doesn't fit this preconceived notion, they dismiss it as false.
Bigots then used this case to support their ugly stereotypes. And this did not stop after these youths were sent to prison. Those who were hostile to children and teenagers continued to bring up this case as a symbol of what youths will do if they are trusted with the least bit of freedom or dignity. As recently as March 2002, the Boston Globe ran an article reminding us of this horrendous crime from 13 years ago:
Jogging alone after work one evening, the 5-foot-5-inch woman became the random target of six to eight teenagers "wilding" through Central Park. When passersby found her the next day, wearing only her bra, she had been gagged, bound, raped repeatedly, and beaten with a brick, a lead pipe, and rocks. Her body temperature hovered around 80 degrees, and she had lost nearly three-quarters of her blood. (6)
Notice the reporter does not say "six to eight men" or "six to eight thugs" or "six to eight criminals." The reporter focuses on their age.
The Ryan Harris Murder
The media, of course, have looked for other examples of evil youth, and have jumped at the chance to hype any example they could find.
In 1998, some reporters thought they had found their dream come true when Chicago police charged two boys (aged 7 and 8) with the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl named Ryan Harris. Once again, reporters and talk show hosts went into a feeding frenzy, telling us what a clear statement this made about the out-of-control youth of today. Week after week, they ranted about these two children who "fully confessed" to molesting and murdering this girl and who showed no remorse.
Once again, few reporters even questioned the official story. According to the prosecutors, these two small boys had overpowered the larger girl (known for playing rough football against boys her own age (7)) and fractured her skull with a brick, then dragged her to another location, sexually assaulted her, and finally suffocated her to death, and never left a fingerprint nor got a stain or tear on their own clothing (8). As in the Central Park jogger case, there was no evidence beyond confessions these children made while in police custody.
Rather than ask questions, the media demanded we go strait to punishing the children. "Why not punish first and then look into the reasons why it happened?" demanded Renee Camille in an editorial for the New Standard:
My two sons are only years younger than the 7- and 8-year-old admitted killers. I look at all three of my children and think, "If my sons killed their sister in the same fashion as those two little monsters did to Ryan Harris in Chicago, would I want justice to be swift, severe and unbending to the fact that my boys are so young?"
You better believe it. But justice would have to pry them away from the swift, severe, unbending punishment this mother would give even her own children for committing murder. (9)
The media crusade against evil children went on for a month. Then the police finally examined their evidence. Their crime lab discovered semen on the victim's clothing. The two prepubescent suspects were biologically incapable of producing semen. The DNA of this semen was eventually matched to Floyd Durr, a 30-year-old man with a history of raping children (10).
It also turned out the cop who had gotten these two innocent children to confess, Detective James Cassidy, had a history of getting children to confess to crimes they did not commit (11).
How many times is this going to happen? How many times are police and reporters going to railroad children for the crimes of adults?
In cases of this nature, we should note this sad element: there is great excitement and hatred throughout the press when people think the perpetrator is young. But once it's revealed the evil-doer is actually an adult, the passion for punishment evaporates.
When people thought the Central Park jogger had been attacked by juveniles, adults everywhere were screaming for the juveniles' heads. Now that we know the attacker was actually an adult, no one seems to care whether that adult is punished. There are no talk show hosts screaming for the execution of Matias Reyes. Certainly, no one is demanding curfew laws for adults because of this adult's crime.
Those who screamed for punishment in 1989 assured us they were not driven by hate. They insisted it was compassion they felt for the victim that drove them to demand punishment. But where is their compassion now? This woman was still raped, and she was still beaten into a coma. Where is the outrage now that we know the proper target for our anger?
Time passes, some might say. Our outrage was exhausted 13 years ago when the crime first happened. Now it's old news.
This explanation might hold water in the Central Park rape, but not the Ryan Harris murder. When the murder first happened, police immediately identified the two children as the culprits. Anger at children raged. But it only took a month for the truth to come out. Then what happened? We never saw any real anger directed at Floyd Durr. Four years after he was identified as Harris's attacker, Durr has yet to even be tried for the crime (12). The justice system did not move this slowly against the children. If it had, the media would have jumped up and down, demanding swifter retribution. With every year that passes, after all, the chances for conviction get smaller. Witnesses move away or die. Memories grow weak. Evidence gets misplaced.
Once Floyd Durr was identified as the real culprit, we stopped hearing about how terrible this crime was. We stopped hearing screams about the need for justice. Renee Camille wrote no editorials demanding "swift and severe" punishment for 30-year-old Durr, nor threatening that if her 30-year-old husband did what Durr did, she would punish him herself before the authorities got a chance.
Eleven-year-old Ryan Harris, straight-A student, passionate athlete, promising child, was murdered by this man. Durr hit her with a brick, cracking her skull. He raped her. He took her underpants and shoved them into her mouth with such force that she choked on her own tongue and died.
And no one seems to care. Not when the killer is an adult.