A few hours ago, we all received a valuable lesson in civics from Donald Trump.
Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2019
Yes, Trump refers to the hallowed “presumption of innocence” that forms the bedrock of our criminal justice system. “Innocent until proven guilty”–for all of us who doubted this country’s institutions, it’s reassuring to see them echoed so boldly by this president.
We’ll forget the fact that, well, Mr. Mueller didn’t actually say that the principle of presumed innocence was ever actually tested here (in fact, rather the opposite, since Mueller was constrained by DOJ regulations not to test it against a sitting president), and also that by its terms “innocent until proven guilty” very much implies the necessity of a trial. But that’s what impeachment is for, right? Impeach, then try, is how the procedure goes. And then, there are those pending matters in the Southern District of New York which won’t be going away anytime soon. It appears almost certain that, in one form or another, the concept of presumed innocence will have its turn with Mr. Trump.
But let’s not wordsmith it—let’s just rejoice in the president’s affirmation of the principle of presumed innocence, since it represents a startling, even groundbreaking evolution of his attitude towards criminal justice.
The year was 1989. A twenty-eight-year-old, white Yale graduate and investment banker named Trisha Meili was brutally beaten and raped in the northern end of New York’s Central Park. A city
known for being accustomed to even the sharpest of shocks was transfixed and horrified by the crime. As Jelani Cobb, writing for the New Yorker explains:
The public hysteria that met the attack is difficult to convey to anyone who was not in the city to witness it. It was, in fact, the worst of a string of serious assaults committed in the park that night, and, from the outset, it was framed by dynamics of race and class.
Five teenagers, all with black or brown-colored skin, were swiftly apprehended only hours after the attacks, and under prolonged police “questioning,” four of them confessed on video to the attack. Except their “confessions” strangely contradicted each other. No matter; in 1990 all five were convicted and sentenced to prison terms, becoming forever known as the “Central Park Five.”
Except they didn’t do it. None of them. The confessions were phony, altered and distorted by the NYPD, and coerced by threats and violence.
In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist, confessed to the crime, and, based on DNA evidence, the charges against the five were vacated. In 2014, the city paid them forty-one million dollars, to settle a federal civil-rights lawsuit.
The case of the Central Park Five is now taught in journalism schools as a textbook example of why people confess to crimes they did not commit, particularly under police “coercion,” and also how the rush to judgment by a fickle press and outraged public can bring about a gross miscarriage of justice.
Where was Donald Trump that year? Oh, he was making as big and loud of a stink as he possibly could.
Trump, who was a notable real estate broker at the time, spent $85,000 on full-page ads in four of New York’s most popular newspapers—New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post and New York Newsday—with the blaring and bold headline, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE.”
But he did more than just defame these boys (who had not yet been tried for the alleged crime and were, therefore, “presumed innocent”). No, he felt compelled to add in his own special flair for exploiting racism which was even then beginning to manifest itself:
In the ad, Trump harped on crime-riddled New York City. He claimed families were not able to enjoy a stroll or a jog in the park due to the incessant “wild criminals” roaming neighborhoods throughout the city.
…Trump wrote. “I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”
He continued: “I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.”
Here is the ad Mr. Trump took out, maligning the five boys later found innocent of any wrongdoing:
Here's the full-page ad Trump took out at the time, pushing for the death penalty: pic.twitter.com/PKK8dXTDBJ
— Jessica Goldstein (@jessicagolds) October 7, 2016
And during the trial itself, Trump continued to capitalize on the case with, again his nascent, now-trademark, incendiary racism:
During the trial—which resulted in all five of their convictions—Trump continued to use the teens’ plight as a platform to advocate for the death penalty. “I don’t see anything inciteful, I am strongly in favor of the death penalty,” he said in an interview with Larry King Live in 1989.
“I am also in favor bringing back police forces that can do something instead of turning their back because every quality lawyer that represents people that are trouble, the first thing they do is start shouting police brutality,” he continued.
In fact, Trump has continued to maintain that the teens were guilty, even after they had been exonerated and released from jail, writing an op-ed published in the Daily News in 2014, in which he called the city’s ultimate $41 million dollar settlement with the teenagers and their families a “disgrace” and referring to their release as a “heist.” He reiterated the same position in a 2016 CNN interview.
Notably, there was no mention by Trump of the “presumption of innocence” during all these years since the Central Park Jogger case. Nor has their ever been any acknowledgment by him of the “insufficient evidence” against those five teenagers, such as the coerced confessions that were eventually revealed with their release.
So yes, it’s gratifying to see that Mr. Trump has evolved in his thinking and now acknowledges the core principles underlying the American criminal justice system.
If only he had managed to have this epiphany before he himself became its target.