A Tale of Two Settlements

Philip Datz was a freelance photojournalist, doing what freelance photojournalists are supposed to do.  That annoyed Suffolk Police Sgt. Michael Milton, who did what he wasn’t.

Philip Datz, 37, was covering the aftermath of a police pursuit on June 29, 2011, when Suffolk Police Sgt. Michael Milton approached him and told him not to film the scene. He filmed the encounter with Milton, who ordered him to leave the scene but not without first charging the freelancer with a misdemeanor count of obstruction of governmental administration. Datz was given a desk appearance ticket.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota dropped the charges in August 2011.

Datz sued the county, and its taxpayers will now be paying the $200,000 settlement.  It’s important that they feel the pain for Milton’s wanton abuse of authority and deprivation of Datz’s constitutional rights, though it would certainly have meant more if Milton suffered for his choices.  But his punishment was a  loss of 23 days of “accrued time,” ten of which he got back if he didn’t do it again.

While it matters, and matters greatly, that the right to video cops in public is reaffirmed, Datz never saw the inside of a cell.  Others were not so lucky.

The Central Park Five case has finally settled for $40 million.

The agreement, reached between the city’s Law Department and the five plaintiffs, would bring to an end an extraordinary legal battle over a crime that came to symbolize a sense of lawlessness in New York, amid reports of “wilding” youths and a marauding “wolf pack” that set its sights on a 28-year-old investment banker who ran in the park many evenings after work.

The case spawned one myth and destroyed another.  Upon their arrest, a tidal wave of hysteria over “wilding” flowed across the nation, causing legislation to treat children as adults and impose increasingly severe punishments.  The “child predator” problem had to be solved.  Except the five were innocent, despite their coerced confessions.  In 2002, when DNA proved the crime was committed by someone else, the myth that no one would falsely confess to such a crime was shown to be false.  Unlike the wilding myth, the lesson wasn’t taken nearly as much to heart.

The five black and Hispanic men, ages 14 to 16 at the time of their arrests, claimed that incriminating statements they had given had been coerced by the authorities. The statements were ruled admissible, and the men were convicted in two separate trials in 1990.

In December 2002, an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, found DNA and other evidence that the woman had been raped and beaten not by the five teenagers but by another man, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer who had confessed to acting alone in the attack. Concluding that the new evidence could have changed the original verdict, Mr. Morgenthau’s office joined a defense motion asking that the convictions be vacated.

It was good of the prosecution to agree that conclusive proof of innocence would have changed the verdict.  It might have been better had they considered the possibility that the confessions were coerced in 1989, rather than wait until 2002.  Teenagers walked into prison. Men walked out years later.

The proposed settlement averages roughly $1 million for each year of imprisonment for the men. That amount would suggest that the city was poised to pay one of the men, Kharey Wise, who spent about 13 years in prison, more than it has in any wrongful conviction case.

The other four men — Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr. — served about seven years in prison.

While Morganthau stood up to concede the error in 2002, the City fought the case hard, contending that while they may have been absolutely wrong, that didn’t mean they were wrong.

In early 2013, the city’s Law Department echoed those views. “The case is not about whether the teens were wrongly convicted,” a department spokeswoman said. “It’s about whether prosecutors and police deliberately engaged in misconduct.”

After all, coercing teenagers into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit isn’t deliberately engaging in misconduct.  And doing everything possible to make sure those confessions are admitted into evidence, in the absolute certainty that the cops would never force kids to say something that wasn’t true could never happen, isn’t deliberately engaging in misconduct.  That’s the job. Convicting guilty people is what we demand they do. Even if they aren’t guilty.

Of course, if they’re convicted, they’re guilty. Even if they didn’t do it.  And if there was any question, then the judge would never have allowed these coerced confessions into evidence, because the law says so, and the judge is a neutral who applies the law fairly and properly. That’s his job.  So there was no harm done these five teenagers, even though they were innocent.

In recent years, the case remained in the public eye, largely through a documentary, “The Central Park Five,” made by the filmmakers Ken Burns; his daughter, Sarah Burns; and her husband, David McMahon.

As recently as last Friday, about 100 people gathered at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn to view the film and to hear a talk by one of the men, Mr. Salaam. He described the stigma of living with the brand of being a rapist. “It wasn’t a popular thing to be one of us,” he said. The film, he added, “really gave us our lives back.”

Two cases. Two settlements. Two videos.  $40,200,000 because some cops couldn’t control themselves.  At least the system worked better for Datz than for the Central Park Five. Maybe things are improving a little.  It’s only been about 25 years.


One comment on “A Tale of Two Settlements

  1. John Barleycorn

    25 years… Well thanks for pointing that out esteemed one. I might have went with a less stark reminder of the passage of time. But it certainly is what it is.

    If one could capture the last 25 years in a single photograph or perhaps a ten second clip to better accommodate younger audiences I wonder if they wouldn’t be immediately arrested for obstructing government administration?

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