THE FIRST decision made by the jurors in the Central Park jogger trial, several of those jurors said later, was that the charges of rioting, rape and attempted murder before them were "not a racial matter." That approach, and the basically balanced and reassuring verdicts that the 12 eventually reached, marked a restraint that was in too little evidence elsewhere in this case, which has fanned passions ever since the 30-year-old white jogger was found beaten, gagged and nearly dead in Central Park 16 months ago. The three defendants in this first of several trials -- all of whom were tried now because they will be sentenced as juveniles -- were convicted of all the lesser charges but acquitted of attempted murder. They can be sentenced up to 10 years each for the convictions, which is the maximum juvenile sentence; in other words, conviction of attempted murder would not necessarily have affected their practical fate.
That the jogger, who has become famous over the months in every detail except her name, was white and a "yuppie" investment banker, and that the six suspects were all young, black and engaged in something that was promptly trivialized and in a perverse sense somehow also romanticized with the term "wilding," has tended over all this time to obscure what the jury remembered: this was a case about brutality, not race. The endless trial testimony and the questions the jury agonized over for nearly two weeks centered on a simple question of fact: whether the confessions by the three defendants were genuine, whether the gory details the three defendants described cheerfully on videotape had in fact taken place. (One said he had bashed the jogger with a brick because "it was fun.") The prosecutors' case rested entirely on those confessions, the defense's on proving them coerced and fake. Jurors said over the weekend that they had ended up viewing one videotape "almost frame by frame," but they didn't deadlock; they persevered and got through it.
It remained to the repellent Rev. Al Sharpton and his associates, familiar from the Tawana Brawley saga and a string of other racially inflammatory cases, to cram this one into the same mold -- to lay the entire prosecution to motives of racist fantasy, to pledge an immediate appeal (Mr. Sharpton's associate C. Vernon Mason yesterday joined the appeal team) and to appear daily with supporters who chanted outside the courthouse that "the boyfriend did it," occasionally chanting the said boyfriend's name. It didn't work. There are still a sentencing, a second trial and appeals to come, but the groundwork has been laid for keeping one thing clear: regardless of the race of the participants, some crimes are crimes.