December 05, 2012
More than two decades later, New Yorkers still feel the impact of
the “Central Park Jogger” case: the arrests of five teenage boys —
all African-American or Latino — falsely charged with raping a
young woman and leaving her for dead.
The woman, a 28-year-old investment banker, was found unconscious
in the park on the evening of April 19, 1989. After extensive
questioning, the police publicly declared that the boys, some as
young as 14, had confessed. No physical evidence linked them to the
crime. Over the next year and a half, juries convicted the
Ph.D., now Assistant Professor of
Sociology at St. John’s University, was a reporter for the
New York Daily News. At the time, she was assigned to
follow the victim’s recovery. Yet as the investigation unfolded,
Dr. Byfield — and some of her colleagues — became uneasy. “There
were aspects of the case I questioned all along,” she said. “Things
simply didn’t add up.”
Time justified her suspicions. In 2002, a convict named Matias
Reyes confessed to the rape, which DNA evidence confirmed. District
Attorney Robert Morgenthau — citing “troubling discrepancies” in
the teens’ confessions — recommended vacating their convictions.
The young men are now suing the city for $250 million.
Today, Dr. Byfield writes and speaks about the incident. Her
“A Time, and a Way, to Heal,” appeared in the November 19
New York Times. She is the author of SavagePortrayals: Race, Media and the Central Park Jogger Story,
a forthcoming book from Temple University Press. She also appears
Central Park Five, Ken Burns’ new documentary.
“The case never left me,” said Dr. Byfield, whose research includes
language and the media, cultural studies and the roles of race,
gender and class in society. The case, Dr. Byfield explained,
raises important questions about the media and its relationships
with other institutions — including the police.
“The media accepted information directly from the police,” she
said. “Despite the discrepancies, newspapers refused to investigate
whether there were alternative explanations. A narrative emerged,
and they stuck to it, that this was a crime by reckless black and
That “narrative,” said Dr. Byfield, reflected New Yorkers’
“heightened fear of crime” in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when
crack cocaine became “prevalent in poor communities.” The case also
bore similarities to a tragic pattern in American culture. “There’s
a long history of this kind of accusation — that black males have a
‘propensity’ to attack white women.”
Other lessons emerged from the case, said Dr. Byfield, including
the danger of wrongful convictions, which “happens more frequently
than we realize.” At the same time, the media must “rethink” its
relationship with other institutions. “Part of what allowed this to
happen was their connection to the police.”
Dr. Byfield joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at
St. John’s in 2007. A graduate of New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant
High School, she earned her bachelor’s degree at Princeton, her
master’s at Stanford and her Ph.D. at Fordham. In addition to the
Daily News, she worked for The American Lawyer;
the Washington, D.C., lobbying group TransAfrica; and the Rev.
Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.
The child of Jamaican immigrants, Dr. Byfield grew up in St.
Albans, Queens. “One thing that helped shape my work in sociology,”
she said, “was my interest in structural inequalities, which I
perceived at an early age.” Navigating those inequities, Dr.
Byfield observed, is vital to “preserving one’s humanity against