What is 7 years of your life worth?
What about 13?
As I’ve thought about the recently announced settlement in New York City’s Central Park Five case, I’ve pondered this over and over. For those unfamiliar, the "Five" are Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise— Black and Latino males who were wrongfully arrested and convicted for the brutal beating and sexual assault of an investment banker in New York City in 1989. The young men ranged from ages 14-16 at the time of their arrests and spent between 7-13 years each in jail before being later released after DNA evidence and a confession from the real rapist exonerated them. Despite having been freed and their innocence proven, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued to respond to critics of the city’s lopsided investigation and prosecution of the young men by repeatedly defending the intentions and integrity of law enforcement involved in the case.
And so I wonder again, is there a price tag that someone can place on injustice?
Well, first let’s try and get the law out of the way. From a legal perspective, the $40 million settlement—roughly $1 million to each for every year they spent incarcerated—can hardly be considered a weak settlement on paper. The $13 million that Wise is scheduled to receive will represent the largest wrongful conviction settlement paid in New York City history. Furthermore, even as New York may arguably be the capital of the world, it is still a municipality. A nine-figure settlement in this case was about as likely as Bloomberg cutting the check himself from his personal account. The city also had the benefit of the law on their side. Success for the five men in the civil rights case brought on their behalf against the city was predicated on their ability to establish that the city didn’t just arrest and convict the wrong people, but that in doing so they intentionally acted with malice in their misconduct. For those familiar with the facts of the case, or anyone who has watched Ken Burns’ extraordinary documentary, this is hardly a difficult conclusion to reach. Couple that with the racial dynamics at play and the political climate of crime control in New York City during the late 80’s-early 90’s, and it would seem a no-brainer, right? Not so fast, Batman. The evolving demographics of New York and gentrification make a jury trial with race as a central element a dicey issue, particularly with so many people going 'color blind' in 2014.
But even after considering all of the above, $40 million seems to fall woefully shy of what justice would dictate for 5 innocent boys who were deprived of their adolescence. Robbed of things that most might take for granted—the nostalgia of one’s high school years, prom, video games—their coming of age story was forever derailed for no other reason that as young men of color, they represented something that the public feared and that fear was easily exploitable by the police and the media. (The irony there, of course, is that it was recent pressure from the media which provided the momentum for the settlement to take place years later.)
In 1989, I was just a few years away of being one of the youngest members of the group myself. I remember the cautionary tales of my older friends and relatives about how easy it was for young Black boys to find themselves railroaded if we weren’t extra careful. Most of the Five were unceremoniously released just around the time that I was graduating high school. I remember thinking then how unfair it was that they would never know the euphoria I felt as I prepared to head off to college. Now, in 2014 as this saga draws to a close, I think not only about these men, but I am again reminded of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Dunn, Oscar Grant, and countless other faceless and nameless young Black men who have had their lives needlessly cut short or simply interrupted simply for being young and Black. And while I am happy that my city has finally attempted to atone for its ills with a monetary settlement, it’s still hard to see this glass as anything but half empty. I’m not sure how you make someone whole for such an atrocity but even in triumph, the message sent about the worth of Black life in larger society remains one that is discouraging.
And so I ask again, what is 7 years of your life worth?
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Kings County (Brooklyn), NY prosecutor and presently serves as a Federal civil rights trial attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr