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Central Park Revisited


These days, Warren works out of a tidy office on the ground floor of the Clinton Hill brownstone he shares with his wife. A painting of Che Guevara looks down on Warren's desk. In the current reinvestigation, Warren is confident that he has the facts and the law on his side. The internal politics of the D.A.'s office could also work in his clients' favor: Nancy Ryan and Peter Casolaro, who were elbowed aside by Linda Fairstein thirteen years ago, are supervising the review.

Even if his clients are exonerated, though, the story won't be over. "Oh, no," Warren says, flashing a smile. "People were put through pain, and there's got to be a payment. What's important to us now is to alleviate the present pain they're going through, to some extent. Where we go from there, we haven't spent much time talking about that. But we're quite aware that there are other remedies."

In a perfect world, the D.A.'s office would have tested Reyes's and every other rapist's DNA against that found on the Central Park jogger's sock. But beyond the practical problems -- no DNA data bank existed in 1989; detectives were plenty busy -- such open-ended hunting would have gone against ingrained NYPD culture. Detectives consider a case closed when "good" arrests are made.

Indirectly, however, the mind-set that shaped the Central Park and Reyes investigations led to one of the crucial improvements in the nineties NYPD. When Bill Bratton arrived as police commissioner, he promoted an eccentric, brilliant transit detective named Jack Maple to become his chief strategist. Maple, who died in 2001, became justly famous for Compstat, a system of mapping crimes -- first with pushpins, then with computers. Maple got less publicity for an equally important change. He pushed for cops to question suspects for leads on any and all other crimes. Good cops already did this, but Maple made it a priority. Sheehan might never have gotten Reyes to implicate himself in the Central Park attack, even following Maple's principles. But he might not have been satisfied with tying Reyes to the Lourdes Gonzalez murder.

Changing police culture is very much on the minds of Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck. Two weeks ago, Neufeld flew from New York to Billings, Montana, to welcome Jimmy Ray Bromgard back to freedom. In 1987, Bromgard was found guilty of raping an 8-year-old girl. In late September, Bromgard became the 111th wrongfully convicted person to be cleared by DNA testing, two thirds of them by Neufeld and Scheck.

"A guy in California just got out, and there will be two more guys next week in Savannah," Scheck says, staring into the distance and trying to do the math in his head. "And soon there will be five more in New York, right?"

Neufeld and Scheck launched the Innocence Project in 1992. Right now their mostly volunteer law-student staff is scrambling to file petitions on behalf of thousands of Florida inmates who've been granted a brief window of time for DNA reviews. The second chance came after a death-row inmate named Frank Lee Smith died awaiting a DNA test that would have cleared him.

But the Innocence Project's agenda is far broader than applying DNA testing to old cases. "Twenty-three percent of the post-conviction DNA exonerations involve false confessions or admissions," Scheck says over a glass of red wine in a bar around the corner from his prodigiously messy Greenwich Village office. "And that's just after conviction. There are thousands of cases where people have been exonerated by DNA after they were arrested but before they were convicted. Many of those cases involve false confessions. The DNA work has pointed clearly and dramatically to this problem of false confessions."

The Innocence Project's solution is to videotape all conversations between police and suspects who are in custody, and Bill Perkins has introduced a City Council bill. "It's a bad idea," a city prosecutor says. "There's so much give and take between detectives and suspects. The smart guys get them something to eat, they talk to them, they schmooze them. You'd be looking at videos that last for hours and hours." There is also the philosophical question of how much a general public that wants to see bad guys locked up is prepared to know about what happens in an interrogation.

Already, though, Scheck and Neufeld have helped make New York's courts more accurate than most. In 1994, they lobbied Governor Mario Cuomo to create a state Forensic Science Review Board that would certify and regulate all crime labs. Then they nudged the city to spend $33 million to upgrade its crime lab in Queens. "Now New York leads the country in trying to run down cold cases with DNA," Scheck says.

During the first Central Park trial, Scheck advised defense lawyer Mickey Joseph, who represented Antron McCray. "The next time I heard about this case was in June, when I was called by a reporter for the Times, who told me that we, the Innocence Project, had received a letter from Matias Reyes," Scheck says. "Except that we hadn't. Oddly enough, he had written to Lynne Stewart and asked her to send the letter on to us." Since then the duo has been consulting with Warren and Wareham and prodding the process forward.

"It would be a terrible shame if this whole reexamination did not result in doing something to prevent false confessions," Scheck says. "The Central Park case has all the earmarks we've seen in our other cases of false confessions. And in all these cases, we find that the real assailant committed many crimes."

Matias Reyes was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, and spent most of his early years there with his father while his mother lived in New York. At 7, Reyes told a psychologist hired by his defense lawyer, his life took a dark turn: He was sexually abused by two male strangers. "Given what Reyes did later on in life, this fits the pattern," says his former lawyer Richard Siracusa. "Then he came to live with his mother in New York. There was a little problem when he was 15 or 16."

Siracusa knows depravity; in practice for 28 years, he's represented serial killers. But the lawyer pauses before continuing: "He and a friend sexually abused Reyes's mother." Reyes returned to his father's house. His mother moved out of state. "He comes back from Puerto Rico after a couple of years, when he's about 17," Siracusa says. "I don't think he ever saw the mother again. He lives over a grocery store, by himself. Then he decided to become a serial rapist."

Until then, Reyes was a muscular but unimposing five-foot-seven-inch anonymous young man, a ninth-grade dropout stocking shelves in a bodega beneath his apartment on Third Avenue at 103rd Street. Reyes told a psychologist hired by Siracusa that he snorted cocaine daily but that "I always say no to violence."

On November 1, 1991, Reyes appeared in court for sentencing. When it was his turn to speak, Reyes began by calling Judge Thomas Galligan -- the same man who'd presided over the Central Park trials -- a "motherfucker," then yelled, "I didn't kill anybody. I'm tired of this shit. The attorneys this court give me don't do nothing for me." Reyes wheeled and punched Siracusa in the head, knocking his lawyer to the ground. "He put a couple of court officers out for a few months -- dislocated shoulder, a broken bone," Siracusa says. "He was kicking and screaming the whole way out. I still remember that look on his face, a face out of your nightmares. He totally changed -- it was like the devil. He's a pure psychopath."

Dr. N. G. Berrill, the psychologist hired by the defense, spent three days examining Reyes. "He was like a wounded child, a defective human being," Berrill says now. "Not psychotic, but someone whose impulse control was poor. He's manipulative. I wouldn't put money on anything he says."

Reyes made at least one trip through Central Park between the night he raped the jogger and his return this spring. In August 1989, he was arrested in the lobby of a building at Lexington and East 91st. From there, detectives drove him to the office of the Sex Crimes unit, inside the 20th Precinct on West 82nd. The police car crossed through Central Park. Sitting in the backseat, looking out the windows at the park on both sides of him, did Reyes worry that the cops would link him to the jogger case? Or did he think, They grabbed those other five suckers -- at least I got away with one? Did the notion flicker through his warped mind that maybe he should take credit for the jogger attack, too?

He might have spared a whole city -- and perhaps five particular teenagers -- years of pain. But instead he kept his secret, because Matias Reyes had no conscience. What's hardest to believe in this long and sad saga is that he's grown one now.


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