The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A decades-old crime reminds us that Donald Trump would rather appear tough than be just

Donald Trump and his then-wife Ivana arrive at a social engagement in New York on Dec. 4, 1989. (Swerzey/AFP/Getty Images)

A few moments of violence define New York City at the peak of its crime wave. The shooting of teens on the subway by Bernie Goetz. Riots in Crown Heights and Bensonhurst. And the 1989 rape of a young white jogger in Central Park.

That last crime was a particularly ugly moment for the city, for several reasons. Five young men, four black and one Hispanic, were arrested, convicted and sent to prison in short order for the assault. The depiction of the young men as having been part of a larger group of people moving through the park harassing and assaulting people drew a stark contrast with the victim, a banker who spent nearly two weeks in a coma.

Donald Trump seized on the frustration of the moment to run a full-page ad in the New York Daily News. "Bring back the death penalty!" it said in large type. "Bring back our police!"

The ad was clearly targeting the accused in the jogger case, a group that came to be known as the Central Park Five. The ad read, in part:

Many New York families — White, Black, Hispanic and Asian — have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the Park at dusk, the Saturday visit to the playground with their families, the bike ride at dawn, or just sitting on their stoops — given them up as hostages to a world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter.

Trump's solution was stark: "I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes."

But the Central Park Five were eventually exonerated. Teens at the time of their arrest, they were interrogated in the absence of their families or lawyers, and each eventually offered a confession to being at the scene. Those confessions were later retracted, with the accused saying that they'd been coerced. What solidified their claims, though, was the confession to the crime of convicted rapist Matias Reyes in 2002. Reyes said he'd acted alone, and DNA evidence matched him to the crime. The city settled a lawsuit brought by the men for $40 million. The case was the subject of a documentary a few years ago.

What's remarkable, though, is that even as he's running for president, Trump stands by his excoriation of the five young men. In an interview with CNN that was published on Thursday, Trump said in a statement to CNN: "They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same."

It's true that the police involved in the original investigation stand by their work. It's also the case that a review of the evidence in the case by a police department panel found reason to believe that the young men were somehow involved, despite the lack of DNA evidence. Understandably, the NYPD's efforts to defend its work prompted allies of the young men to call the report "a biased and belated attempt to clear the reputation of the Police Department," in the description of the New York Times.

It barely needs to be mentioned that there's a potent racial element to this case. Trump has ostensibly been trying to reach out to black voters for some time, without much evidence of success. Part of that pitch has been to argue that black communities (usually described as "inner cities") are rife with crime, and that "you can't walk down the street without getting shot." (In fact, violent crime is down substantially in the past few years, even though isolated cities, like Chicago, have seen an uptick in murders.) He's also been cynically trying to portray Hillary Clinton as having been unacceptably tough on crime in the 1990s, highlighting her comments about "superpredators" in defense of the 1994 crime bill. Broadly, Trump's failure to cop to his mistakes in the Central Park Five case and in his birtherism is still a giant obstacle for black voters.

What the Central Park Five question could have allowed Trump to do was express some nuance, explaining (as Clinton has) why he took such a firm stance in that case — and how subsequent revelations might have moderated his response. It's comparable to those (also like Clinton) who have said that their Iraq votes were wrong given evidence that emerged after the fact. But just as Trump makes the false argument that he was opposed to the war at the outset so that he can insist that he's been consistent, in the Central Park case he similarly values consistency and strength over nuance and accuracy.

This is a particularly revealing case given that Trump wants to be president, a job that carries a critical check to the judicial system. The president can pardon those convicted of crimes. What this case suggests is that Trump would be disinclined to moderate his original view on a subject, even if new evidence emerges. After more than a decade, the justice system recognized that it had made mistakes, and justice was applied. Trump doesn't accept that.

This case combines a lot of the fault lines that lie beneath Trump's candidacy: divisions over race, an unwillingness to admit mistakes, his continued insistence on the centrality of crime concerns. His statement to CNN suggests that, as always, he defaults to the same political position: I was right, crime's a major problem, and if the only people who accept that are the people already in my base, so be it.

Five men wrongly convicted and imprisoned in the 1989 beating and rape of a Central Park jogger have agreed to settle with New York City for about $40 million. The proposed settlement would give the "Central Park Five" about $1 million for each year of imprisonment. Here are seven other notable exoneration cases. (Video: Kiratiana Freelon, Natalie Jennings and Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)