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The Myth of the Black Rapist & Wrongful Convictions in Sexual Assault Cases in the United States

The myth of the Black rapist is one of most dangerous and prevalent narratives in American history. (1) Dating back to the racially based slave system that existed before the Civil War was the view that African American men were innately barbaric and conceptualized as sexual predators targeting innocent white women. (2) Scholars including Angela Davis (1983) have documented the fact that historically, the mere accusation of a rape of a White woman would send vigilante lynch mobs to violently capture and kill the alleged assailant. It is estimated that more than 10,000 African American men were lynched between 1880 and 1930 under the guise that White women needed protection from the dangerous Black man. (3) While lynch mobs may be a thing of the past, these historical atrocities and injustices against African American men are important insights into the relationship between race and wrongful convictions in contemporary society.


A considerable body of literature exists on the causes of wrongful convictions. Much of this literature came with the advent of DNA exonerations late in the twentieth century, however very little attention has been paid to the relationship between race, wrongful convictions, and exonerations. This is surprising considering the statistical data which posits that 155 (62%) of the first 250 DNA exonerations in the United States were African American men. (4) More recent data on American exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations reports that African Americans constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations (as of October 2016). (5) Additionally, it is reported that fifty-nine percent of sexual assault exonerees are African Americans, almost four-and-a-half-times their proportion within the general American population. (6) The alarming nature of these statistics demands a closer look at the sociological factors that lead to so many wrongful convictions of African American men in sexual assault cases.


According to the general literature, scholars have identified eyewitness error and false confessions as two principal contributors of wrongful convictions. (7) Other contributors include flawed scientific evidence, official misconduct, ineffective defense counsel, and perjured testimony. (8) It is generally accepted that a combination of many of these factors contribute to the overrepresentation of wrongfully convicted African American men in cases of sexual assault due to the systemic racism that is inherently present within the entirety of the criminal justice system. (9) One of the most infamous examples of this is the Central Park Jogger case of 1989.


Regarded as one of New York City’s most horrible crimes, the Central Park Jogger case involved the brutal rape and near fatal attack of a White woman in Manhattan’s Central Park. (10) Following the discovery of her unconscious body, local law enforcement proceeded to arrest and charge four African Americans and one Latino (Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise), aged 14-16 at the time of the assault, who were ultimately convicted in two separate jury trials. (11) The victim in this case suffered from severe amnesia following the assault, therefore could not identify her assailant(s), nor was there any physical evidence linking any of the youths to the attack. Instead, the convictions came as a result of written and videotaped confessions that each youth either witnessed or facilitated the attack. It is important to note that none of the young boys actually confessed to attacking the woman. It is reported that each of the five youths were interrogated for hours preceding the confessions, but there is no record of the interrogation tactics that were used to elicit each of the false confessions. (12) Following the convictions, multiple appeals were filed however none of the defendants were award appellate relief. (13)


In 2002, a New York State inmate by the name of Matias Reyes confessed to being the sole assailant in the case of the Central Park Jogger. Reyes was serving a prison sentence for a variety of violent offences that he committed during the four months following the attack of the Central Park Jogger in 1989. (14) In addition to Reyes’s admission of guilt, his DNA was also found to match the samples recovered from the crime scene. Following Reyes’s admission, attorneys for the Central Park Five filed motions for postconviction relief which resulted in a bombshell report by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office which indicated that the defendants’ confessions “differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime”. (15) While the circumstances surrounding the wrongful convictions and eventual exonerations of the Central Park Five may be unique in some regards, this is but one example of systemic racism that led to the imprisonment of five innocent boys.


As previously noted, over half of sexual assault exonerees are African American men. While many of these miscarriages of justice came as the result of eyewitness error, a substantial amount of these cases can be attributed to false confessions. There are two different explanations of false confessions that have been identified in the literature. The first explanation is confessions which were obtained from individuals who were unable to fully understand the police interrogation process. For example, juveniles (like the Central Park Five), or individuals who lacked the intellectual capacity to distinguish between the hypothetical and the actual. (16) The second class of false confessions are those that derive from coercive interrogation tactics that suggest that it is in the suspect’s best interest to confess. (17) Gross et al. (2005) commented that Black juveniles appear to be at increased risk for coercive interrogation. (18)


While social psychologists have made significant contributions to our understanding of the various contributing factors in cases of wrongful convictions, the intersection of race with the criminal justice system cannot be overlooked. Throughout this paper, I have providing alarming figures on the prevalence of wrongful convictions of African American men in cases of sexual assault. In the case of the Central Park Jogger, coercive police interrogation tactics can be pinpointed as one of the leading causes of the wrongful convictions of five innocent boys, however deeper sociological explanations are needed in order to explain the high prevalence of wrongfully convicted African American men. Commenting on this phenomenon, Gross et al. (2005) appropriately reminded us that “Of all the problems that plague the American system of criminal justice, few are as incendiary as the relationship between race and rape”. (19) While there have been policy advances in preventing wrongful convictions such as mandatory videotaping of police interrogations, more research and more effort is needed to combat the enduring myth of the Black rapist that continues to leave a stain on the criminal justice system.


References........................

1. Davis, A. (1983). Women, race, and class. New York: Vintage Books [Davis].

2. Johnson, M. B., Griffith, S., & Barnaby, C. Y. (2013). African Americans Wrongly Convicted of Sexual Assault Against Whites: Eyewitness Error and Other Case Features, Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 11(4), 277-294 [Johnson et al].

3. Smith, E., & Hattery, A. J. (2011). Race, Wrongful Conviction & Exoneration. Journal of African American Studies, 15, 74-94 [Smith].

4. Garrett, B. (2011). Convicting the innocent: Where criminal prosecutions go wrong. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674060982 [Garrett].

5. Gross, S. R., Possley, M., & Stephens, K. (2017, March 07). RACE AND WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES. Retrieved from National Registry of Exonerations: http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf, p. 1 [Gross, 2017].

6. Ibid at p. 11.

7. Johnson et al, supra note 2 at 279.

8. Ibid.

9. Smith, supra note 3.

10. Johnson, M. B. (2005). The Central Park Jogger Case-Police Coercion and Secrecy in Interrogation. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 3(1-2), 131-143 [Johnson].

11. Ibid.

12. Johnson et al, supra note 2 at 286.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid at 287.

15. Ibid

16. Smith, supra note 3 at 87.

17. Ibid

18. Gross, S., Jacoby, K., Matheson, D. J., Montgomery, N., & Patil, S. (2005). EXONERATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES 1989 THROUGH 2003. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 95, 523-560 [Gross, 2005].

19. Ibid at 548.




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