In her new book, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America, Ann Coulter riffs on the Central Park Jogger case and uses the case as a prime example of how liberals, especially those "Innocence Project defense style lawyers" undermine the rule of law by rewriting history to undermine faith in the criminal justice system. Coulter has been all over the internet recently raging about the Jogger case, presumably to promote her book and to respond to some criticism she took from the New York Times in its review of Sarah Burns's recent book on the Jogger case. In that review, Maggie Nelson, in discussing the continuing public fascination with the case, wrote that "coarser pundits like Ann Coulter continue to exploit the case."
The book chapter in Demonic (which I did not buy, but which I read in the book store) is an expansion of earlier articles Coulter wrote in 2002 in the wake of a New York judge's decision to grant the Manhattan District Attorney's motion to vacate the convictions of the jogger defendants. Reading the chapter, one gets the impression that Coulter investigated the case, delved deeply into the facts, and came to the conclusion that the original police account of what happened to the jogger -- the account in the boys' confessions -- is the truth. A closer look at her sources, however, indicates she did no such thing. She basically lifted her account directly from the Armstrong Report, a report written by New York attorney Michael Armstrong, among others, and commissioned by then New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley in the wake of the jogger defendants' exonerations.
The Armstrong Report, however, did not come to the conclusion that the boys' confessions were reliable. He and his colleagues, after analyzing the confessions, simply came to the opinion that the boys's confessions were slightly more reliable than the confession of Matias Reyes (whose DNA did match DNA on the jogger's sock) and that it was "more likely than not" that the boys participated in the attack on the jogger. This is a far cry from a finding that the jogger case defendants were absolutely guilty and an admission that the boys were certainly not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, if I recall Armstrong's testimony before the New York City Council (I also testified before the Council), he and his colleagues on the panel did not question the decision to vacate the boys's convictions so much as defend the conduct of the police and argue with the conclusions of some that the boys were absolutely innocenct. Morever, Armstrong and his colleagues, in an attempt to reconcile the boys' confessions (which did not mention Reyes) with Reyes', came up with a theory of the crime -- a theory that he admitted was speculation -- that was a far cry from the brutal rape and attempted murder described in some of the boys's confessions:
We adopt the view that the most likely scenario for the events of April 19, 1989 was that the defendants came upon the jogger and subjected her to the same kind of attack, albeit with sexual overtones, that they inflicted upon other victims in the park that night. Perhaps attracted to the scene by the jogger’s screams, Reyes either joined in the attack as it was ending or waited until the defendants had moved on to their next victims before descending upon her himself, raping her and inflicting upon her the brutal injuries that almost caused her death.
Like Sarah Burns, I have studied extensively the cases of the Central Park jogger defendants. I share her belief that to the extent these confessions got some of the facts right, the police suggested the facts to the boys, either through leading questions, showing crime scene photos to the boys, or taking them to the crime scene. Since the exoneration of the joggers, this phenomenon of police contamination -- the inadvertent feeding of inside information about the crimes to the suspect -- has been found to be rampant in known cases of false confessions. Coulter trumpets the fact that the boys were not coerced into confessing but again she misses the point. Simply because the police did not browbeat or torture the boys into confessing does not mean that their confession are reliable. In virtually every known wrongful conviction based on false confessions, courts have ruled that confessions were voluntary and admitted them into evidence that were later proven to be false.
The biggest problem with Coulter's take is not her analysis of the Jogger case facts. It is her analysis of the role the media played in the jogger cases and has played in the innocence movement. It is not liberal media who hates the rule of law or who is responsible for undermining faith in our criminal justice system. If anything, the so-called liberal media either adopts uncritically the police and prosecutor's line up to and during criminal trials or plays to the fears of the public, fueling their anger, and convicting defendants in the press. This is precisely what happened in the jogger case as the right wing media (so admired by Coulter) and the left wing media (so despised by her) described the teens in animalistic terms, took their confessions as the gospel truth, and ignored the gaping holes in the prosecutors' cases. The role of the press, right wing and left wing, in convicting innocent defendants before trial and by eroding the presumption of innocence, has been far more damaging to the criminal justice system than anything the Innocence Projects have ever done. Morever, it is the intransigence of police and prosecutors (and pundits) in the wake of DNA evidence and other evidence of actual innocence that poses the greatest threat to public confidence in the criminal justice system.