Speakers at a recent Philadelphia Bar Association forum said present-day criminal defendants still face the kinds of injustices on display in the case of the Central Park Five, pictured here at the 2019 BET Awards. (Getty)
After spending more than a dozen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Hassan Bennett didn’t need to watch Netflix’s recent miniseries on the Central Park Five case to understand the challenges black and brown communities face when forced to go toe-to-toe with the criminal justice system.
At a Philadelphia Bar Association forum dedicated to examining issues raised by Ava DuVernay’s miniseries "When They See Us," which centers on five teenagers wrongfully accused of raping a jogger in New York City, Bennett said that, as much as he tried to watch the film, he just couldn’t get through it.
“I tried to watch this movie, I tried to watch this movie over and over, but I could never watch it from beginning to end,” he said. “I lived it.”
DuVernay’s miniseries dramatizes the arrest, conviction and eventual exoneration of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise on charges related to the beating and rape of Trisha Meili in Manhattan’s Central Park in April 1989.
While the prosecution’s case was built in large part on confessions that the boys, who ranged between 14 and 16 years old at the time of their arrests, provided to police after being detained, the group eventually said the statements were coerced out of them during interrogations that occurred outside the presence of either parents or legal counsel.
The charges against the five were eventually vacated in December 2002 after Matias Reyes, who was serving a life sentence for a string of other sexual assaults, confessed that he’d attacked Meili alone.
Bennett, meanwhile, was arrested as a 23-year-old for the shooting death of Devon English in Philadelphia in 2006, only to win an acquittal this year after dismissing his court-appointed counsel and taking the helm of his own defense.
He was ultimately able to upend his conviction before a Pennsylvania appeals court and convince a jury, in what became his third trial on the murder charge, to set him free.
Much like the Central Park Five case, the key to Bennett’s eventual acquittal was in discrediting statements from two witnesses who claimed he’d participated in the shooting.
The witnesses eventually said that their statements had been coerced out of them by a Philadelphia homicide detective, James Pitts, who has since come under an ethical cloud for his interrogation tactics.
At the Sept. 16 forum, Bennett said that, at the time of his arrest, he didn’t understand the lengths that law enforcement was willing to go to pursue what he said were often preconceived notions of guilt.
“You want to believe in the system,” he said. “I’m saying I’m innocent. You can’t find nobody guilty of a crime they didn’t do.”
The truth of the matter, he said, was less just.
“The prosecution picks up the case because they think they can get a guilty verdict,” he said. “I didn’t know that.”
Patricia Cummings, who heads the conviction integrity unit in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, said false confessions were a systemic problem in the criminal justice system.
“People falsely confess all the time,” she said during the forum. “Sometimes, we have law enforcement officials that take advantage of the downtrodden, they take advantage of the juvenile, they take advantage of the person with mental health issues. It can also be as simple as, ‘I want to get out of here and go home, and when a police officer promises that to me after 72 hours of interrogation, it can sound pretty tempting.’”
Bennett said it was something he’d experienced throughout his own ordeal.
“It’s no windows, just a table and a chair,” he said. “You’re locked in that room and just have to sit there and dwell on your thoughts. You’re going to fall asleep and wake up, and you don’t have any clue how long you’ve been there. That 72 hours feels like months.”
And throughout that disorienting experience, he said, come the questions.
“You’ve got someone who strategically comes in and they glide around and sit down in front of you, and they start asking you questions that wouldn’t ever be allowed in a courtroom,” he said.
Keir Bradford-Grey, the chief defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said at the forum that attorneys needed to confront the roles that racial prejudice and implicit bias played throughout the criminal justice system.
“We as lawyers need to start being more honest about how race drives decision-making, and what we can do to call it out,” she said.
Bennett said he believed racial prejudice played a major role in how his case was presented to jurors.
He said prosecutors claimed he and the two other men linked with English’s shooting had all been smoking marijuana prior to the attack.
In truth, however, he said he hadn’t smoked marijuana in years and there were drug tests to prove he was clean at the time of the shooting.
“They played it like it was a rap video,” he said.
An important part of challenging racially prejudicial narratives from prosecutors, Bradford-Grey said, was questioning potential bias or jurors during voir dire.
Unfortunately, she said, the standard question asked by judges on the point during voir dire was woefully inadequate, and her own efforts to supplement it with additional questions had been met with resistance.
“I was told, ‘I’m going to use the standard question, and that’s going to get to the heart of implicit bias,’” she said. “Here’s the question: ‘This case involves Mr. Defendant, who is a black man, and Mr. Victim, who is a white man. Does anyone have a problem with that?’”
On the whole, she said that defense attorneys needed to understand and cater to the real world experiences of their clients, and work hard to empower their clients and make them part of the defense process.
“What we practice is client-centered defense, which means empowering the individual to understand the process so that they can make the best decision for themselves,” she said. “I’m not here to save you, I’m not David as a defense attorney going up against this big machine that’s Goliath. The person being accused is David, I’m the weapon that David uses to beat Goliath.”
--Editing by Aaron Pelc.
Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.