Even by New York standards, the media coverage of the ”Central Park jogger” case was disturbingly frenzied. Everything about the brutal rape and near-murder of a young white investment banker by a group of black and Latino teenagers in 1989 exposed primal areas of the city’s and the nation’s psyche — creating a swirling public spectacle of racial fear, paranoia, ideological posturing, and mutual contempt among black and white, rich and poor.
Given such overexposure, what more could possibly be said about the case? Quite a lot, as it turns out. With the victim clinging to her embattled anonymity and the perpetrators continuing to pose as innocents framed by vengeful cops (despite having been convicted on the basis of richly detailed videotaped confessions), Timothy Sullivan’s Unequal Verdicts: The Central Park Jogger Trials wisely tells the story from the point of view of the lawyers on both sides. The result is a lively and persuasive look at the much-maligned criminal justice system working under almost unimaginable strain to achieve something resembling justice.
The news editor of cable’s Courtroom Television Network and a former editor of Manhattan Lawyer magazine, Sullivan is not the most vivid storyteller, nor does he always provide enough information for readers who live outside the New York metropolitan area. But these shortcomings are offset by his ability to bring complex legal issues into dramatic focus, providing a unique perspective on otherwise bewildering events.
Sullivan is particularly adept at cutting through the racial circus and focusing on legal strategies and tactics. The happier the defense attorneys made their clients’ families, for example, by creating uproar in the courtroom, the more they antagonized the jury — particularly the black members, who took their moral responsibility gravely enough, according to Sullivan, not to be swayed by ”persistent appeals to their racial loyalty.” Without necessarily believing every syllable spoken by police, he says, the jurors ”considered ridiculous (the) suggestion that they ignore the evidence and succumb to race paranoia.” Albeit imperfectly, the system worked, and learning how and why that happened instead of being guided through an exposition of true-crime horrors makes Unequal Verdicts an exemplary lesson in realworld civics. B