By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The reported $40 million settlement between New York City and five men wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape of a woman jogger in Central Park is the latest sign that Mayor Bill de Blasio will not always defend the police in civil rights cases.
It's a stance de Blasio has used to contrast himself with the policies of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who rejected allegations of police misconduct in the case. The city spent nearly $6 million over a decade to fight a lawsuit brought by the five men.
The settlement appears to be the largest in a wrongful conviction case in New York history and is in line with the biggest jury verdicts in similar cases, suggesting the city did not secure a major discount for avoiding trial, experts said.
"It’s certainly consistent with what appears to be a different approach that de Blasio is taking from Bloomberg,” said Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at the University of California in Los Angeles and an expert on police misconduct claims.
The deal, confirmed to Reuters on Thursday by a person familiar with the matter, comes five months after de Blasio dropped the city's challenge to a federal judge's ruling that the police's stop-and-frisk policy amounted to racial profiling. Bloomberg had fiercely defended the practice, insisting it was lawful and effective at reducing crime.
De Blasio and city’s law department representatives did not comment. Lawyers for the men declined to comment.
The “Central Park Jogger” rape drew national attention amid rising crime rates and racial tension in New York in the late 1980s.
The men convicted in the case - Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, all black or Hispanic teenagers – confessed after lengthy interrogations to assaulting Trisha Meili, a white 28-year-old investment banker.
The teens recanted, saying the confessions were the result of coercion and fatigue, but were convicted. Another man, serial rapist Matias Reyes, would confess in 2002, and the five men's convictions were vacated after DNA tied Reyes to the crime.
Wise, who was 16 and the oldest of the boys at the time, spent 13 years in prison and would receive the settlement's biggest share, a person familiar with the matter said.
The Bloomberg administration took a hard line, fighting the case since it was first filed in 2003.
"There was no wrongdoing or malice on the part of the prosecutors or the detectives who conducted the investigation," Celeste Koeleveld, a city lawyer, told Reuters in 2012.
But de Blasio called the convictions an injustice and vowed to settle.
The deal, which still requires approval from the city comptroller and a federal judge, would effectively pay the five men $1 million for each year in prison - a surprise to some experts.
"That’s the maximum rate in cases you’ve seen going to verdict," said Jennifer Laurin, a University of Texas law professor. "It doesn’t look like much of a compromise position."
In April, two men wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years for murdering a Long Island teenager were awarded $18 million each by a federal jury.
By contrast, David Ranta, who served 23 years after he was wrongfully convicted of killing a Brooklyn rabbi, reached a $6.4 million settlement with the city this year.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Trott)