Lawyers: the gang that can't shoot straight.
Citing the recent confession of an imprisoned rapist, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau asked a judge to vacate the convictions of the five men found guilty in the April 1989 brutal rape and beating of a 28-year-old jogger in Central Park and other attacks that night.
Morgenthau also asked State Supreme Court Judge Charles Tejeda to vacate all the verdicts against the men, including other judgments stemming from the infamous night of "wilding." In addition to the rape, the defendants were convicted of assault, sex abuse and attempted murder in the jogger case. They were also convicted of assault for allegedly attacking eight other people in Central Park.
Morgenthau's decision comes as a remarkable turnabout in a case that stunned the city. At one time, New York prosecutors were sure of the men's guilt. All five of the then-teenage suspects Raymond Santana, 14, Kevin Richardson, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Kharey Wise, 16, and Yusef Salaam, 15 had allegedly confessed to police.
The assault left the jogger near death and in a coma for 12 days. She did not remember anything about the attack. At their trial, the suspects said their confessions had been coerced and though prosecutors had little other evidence, a jury convicted the five defendants. They have since completed sentences of more than five years in prison.
Division Over the Decision
However, in an exclusive interview with ABCNEWS' Primetime in September, convicted murderer-rapist Matias Reyes said that he alone was responsible for the attack on the jogger.
DNA tests which were not as sophisticated in 1989 as they are now have tied semen found at the crime scene to Reyes. The admission and new evidence forced Morgenthau and his office to re-examine the case and reach the recommendation for the five men.
Still, some law enforcement officials believed that the five defendants are still guilty of other crimes that fateful night. Police said the Central Park rape was part of a rampage of 12 random attacks by a gang of as many as 40 black and Hispanic youths who were participating in the "wilding" spree.
Morgenthau asked that all the convictions be vacated, even though sources told ABCNEWS the Manhattan district attorney's office still believed the five men are guilty of those other crimes and that those convictions should stand. There is no evidence of the police or prosecutorial misconduct the five suspects have alleged in the case, the sources said.
Detectives who were involved in the Central Park jogger rape investigation still believe the five defendants were somehow involved in the attack and that Reyes was with them. They just disagree over whether he was with the teens during the rape or whether he attacked the jogger after the others.
"I believe these kids did it. They said they did it," said Bert Arroyo, who was the lead detective on the case.
"The videotapes speak for themselves," he said, referring to videotaped confessions made by the defendants.
Arroyo told ABCNEWS the teenagers gave the confessions voluntarily and without coercion. He said that no one from the Manhattan District Attorney's office has contacted him or other key investigators while reviewing the case.
"It says that it wasn't a complete and thorough investigation," Arroyo said. "It clearly says that."
Apparently, though, too much doubt has been cast on the confessions for Morgenthau. Arroyo believes the motivation to overturn the convictions is political, sparked by an internal rift within Morgenthau's office.
Like a Perfect Crime
Reyes said the only reason he was never considered a suspect in the Central Park jogger case was because police had confessions from the five teens, and he thought he had gotten away with the crime.
"It was like a perfect crime," Reyes told ABCNEWS. "The only reason I didn't come up is because I got away with it." In the four months following the attack, as investigators questioned the teens, Reyes raped four other women, killing one. One of his victims was attacked near Central Park on April 17, 1989, two days before the assault on the jogger. The victim told a detective that her attacker had fresh stitches in his chin, and the investigator learned a week later that Reyes fit that description.
However, Reyes was never questioned about that attack. The detective was transferred to another division, and a supervisor reportedly attached a note to the case file that said the case was closed. Reyes was captured on Aug. 5, 1989, after another attack, and is serving 33 years to life in prison.
One of the reasons Morgenthau favors vacating the convictions may be that defense attorneys argue that prosecutors never told them that there was another rape near Central Park just two days before the jogger was attacked. By law, convictions must be vacated if credible new evidence emerges that would have changed the jurors' decision.
Some jurors talked to ABCNEWS about the case, and said if they knew then what they know now, they too would throw out the convictions.
"If we'd had this information, there wouldn't have been a trial," said one juror, Eric Roach.
"If I had known that this man had done this, then I would not have convicted these young men," said Ben Neal, another juror.
The Truth and Its Consequences
At trial, the suspects' detailed confessions to the attacks were key to their convictions. But they say law enforcement officials promised them that they would be released if they confessed to the attack and they felt enormous pressure to get out of custody any way they could.
"It could be tantamount to someone holding a gun to your head," said Salaam. "You're 15 years old, but you know sooner or later that a bullet is going to come out. That's the type of feeling I had."
"They just told me that I was going to go home," said Wise.
Morgenthau's recommendation could open the door to multiple wrongful conviction
lawsuits from the defendants. Supreme Court Justice Tejada would make a final ruling on
the recommendation early next year.
ABCNEWS' Cynthia McFadden and WABC News in New York City contributed to this report.