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Against the Spirit of the Age: Justice and the Central Park Five

Some crimes perfectly capture the spirit of their age. Case in point: the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968, which epitomized the tumultuous 1960s.

Another such crime is the 1989 rape and beating of Trisha Meili, better known as the “Central Park Jogger.” The brutal attack at the hands of five young men introduced Americans to the word “wilding,” which summed up our fear of violent crime and the feral youth that committed it. It became a potent reminder of our need to “get tough” on crime and those who committed it.

The problem is that almost everything we thought we knew about the case was wrong.

The last most Americans heard about the case, five young men, all of them African-American or Hispanic, were arrested and charged with the attack. Four of them confessed and implicated the fifth one. They were convicted on the basis of their confessions and sentenced to long prison terms.

End of story.

Except it wasn’t the end of the story. What you probably don’t know is that 12 years later, another man confessed to the crime. And unlike the “Central Park Five,” none of whose DNA was found at the crime, his DNA was found. In fact, his DNA was the only DNA, apart from the victim’s, found at the crime scene.

You also probably don’t know that, based on this evidence, Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan District Attorney, moved to have the convictions vacated. His reasoned that if the jury had heard this evidence, they would have doubted the validity of the confessions, which followed hours of questioning and were retracted days after they were made. New York judge Charles L. Tejada agreed.

All of this is the subject of a new Ken Burns film, “The Central Park Five,” based on the book of the same name by his daughter, Sarah. As Sarah Burns put it, the case “exposed the deepest fears of New Yorkers in the 1980s” and demonstrated “who and what we fear.”

Acting on that fear, there was a rush to judgment, especially in the media. As Poynter.org, which covers the media, said, the real “wolf pack” in the story was the New York media.

There was little if any discussion about “innocent until proven guilty.” Instead, there was the relentless pursuit of headlines and exclusives that reinforced the narrative of a city under siege by the feral “other.”

If innocent people were caught up in the rush to judgment, well, that was just the price of making people feel, if not safe, then avenged.

The problem is that whatever you might call this, it is not justice. And since, for the Christian, the right administration of justice is the government’s primary obligation, then we should be greatly concerned at this miscarriage of justice.

Chuck Colson understood this. While he recognized our fear of crime and the need for order, he also saw where that fear could take us. He knew that giving government a blank check to “get tough on crime” threatened all of our liberties, as well as risking injustice.

Pointing this out when everyone else was clamoring for blood was not the most popular position to take. It still isn’t. But as we’ve learned, the majority can be, and often are, wrong. And, besides, Christians are called to resist the spirit of their age.

If you would like to know more about a biblically-based approach to justice, please visit the website of Justice Fellowship, which Chuck founded in 1993 as the criminal justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries. It’s at JusticeFellowship.org.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: January 7, 2013

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