On April 19, 1989, a 39-year-old woman named Trisha Meili went for a jog in New York’s Central Park. She was raped and violently assaulted.
Partly because of the attack’s brutality, partly because of news reports the perpetrators were a gang of “wilding” black youths and partly because of who the victim was—white, a Yale MBA, a Wall Street investment banker—“the Central Park Jogger” case stirred global pre-Internet passions and angry demands police arrest someone—now.
The police did charge five teenaged boys, four blacks and an Hispanic. Though some were juveniles, police and media publicly identified them anyway. Four confessed. They were all convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
“Justice” had been served.
Flash forward 13 years.
The boys, now men, had served their sentences and been released.
That’s when another man confessed to the crime. His DNA matched that found at the crime scene.
The original convictions were—too late—vacated.
What went wrong? In the rush for “justice,” certain inconvenient facts got overlooked. The confessions, which often contradicted one another about what had happened and were all later recanted, had been coerced by a police force under intense public pressure to nail the bastards. None of the crime scene DNA matched any of the suspects; the only DNA collected came from one, then-unknown-now-known person.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because, at a time of understandable, social-media-enflamed passion about the tragic suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, we need to be cautious about what we think we know.
The no-name hactivists at Anonymous who, ironically, threaten to name Parsons’ alleged rapists if their hang-’em-high version of justice isn’t done—and done quickly—claim to know who did it. They also claim names of alleged perpetrators being circulated by others are wrong. How do they really know either?
And would what they imagine they know actually stand up in court, where the evidence bar rises above an email allegation, a Facebook post or a 140-character tweet?
By all means, let’s have an independent public review of how police, prosecutors, the school and others handled this case.
But let’s not assume its outcome.
Or presume mob vengeance is justice for Rehteah or anyone else.