Everyone in New York remembers the Central Park Jogger case. Everyone remembers that five teenagers were convicted of the brutal attack and rape of a young woman jogging alone one night in 1989. But everyone doesn’t remember that those teenagers were wrongfully convicted and, after a decade in prison, were exonerated through DNA testing.
I was one of the teenagers, and my name is Korey Wise.
I was a 15-year-old kid hanging out with my friends as I did every other day. That night, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After the brutal attack on this woman, police interrogated us all night long. I was tired, confused, and crashing, and I finally confessed to being involved in the attacks. I wanted the interrogation to end and I was thinking about the consequences if I didn’t tell the police what they wanted to hear. Little did I know that all of our confessions would be presented as evidence even though they differed in the time, location, and participants of the rape.
I was incarcerated for nearly 15 years before I was finally exonerated. When I share my story with people now, they almost always ask if I am angry. I would be lying if I said I’m not angry sometimes for the time I lost and can never get back. But more than anything, I am angry that more hasn’t been done to fix our criminal justice system so this doesn’t happen to other people.
My case and the 23 other DNA exonerations in New York reveal serious problems in the state’s criminal justice system – problems that profoundly impact individuals’ lives and entire communities, and demand serious solutions.
Right now, Governor David Paterson and leaders in the State Legislature are considering reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions and help exonerate innocent people. Before the end of June, they will decide whether to act on reforms that can make our justice system more fair, accurate and reliable.
It is critical that our elected officials take action this year. They should pass a package of legislation that would make it easier for prisoners to prove their innocence, improve eyewitness identification procedures and require that interrogations be recorded.
These reforms help everyone. Obviously, I look at this from the point of view of an innocent person who spent a decade in prison for a horrible crime I did not commit. But wrongful convictions also harm crime victims, who do not see justice when the wrong person is put in prison. These reforms also benefit law enforcement, because police and prosecutors are able to catch the true perpetrators of crime.
Among the reforms under consideration in Albany are simple changes to the law that would make it easier for people to get DNA testing after they have been convicted. Right now, for example, people who initially pled guilty to crimes cannot get DNA testing that could prove their innocence.
Another simple reform would allow judges to order DNA or fingerprint database searches when evidence from the crime scene does not match the defendant or a person who is appealing a conviction. These database comparisons can exonerate innocent people and identify repeat offenders who were not brought to justice.
If these reforms had been in place after I was convicted, I might have been exonerated years sooner. When DNA testing was finally conducted on multiple pieces of evidence in the Central Park Jogger case, it matched a man who had committed similar rapes in the park at around the same time. Once the DNA testing was done, he confessed that he alone committed the rape for which we were convicted.
My case is unique in many ways, but it illustrates problems in our criminal justice system that affect cases across the state. To protect the public – to prevent wrongful convictions, while apprehending true criminals – our elected officials need to act in the days and weeks ahead to adopt reforms that can make a difference. We’ve waited too long already, and the stakes are too high for inaction.