Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
If you are listening to this episode, without first listening to Episode 45 from yesterday, stop now, and go back and listen to episode 45 on the Central Park Five. It’s only 12 minutes long, but it’s really the intro to what I am about to say.
Today, I’m going to unpack a dirty little secret, and it’s one that we must fight to change. It’s not only at the center of the Central Park Five case, it’s at the center of our entire justice system. Did you know that America’s prosecutors and district attorneys, as it stands right now, have absolute immunity from prosecutorial misconduct — even for the most severe cases of misconduct? That was made law in 1976 by the Supreme Court in the case of Imbler v. Pachtman. And it’s abused and weaponized every single day.
Let’s dig in.
This is Shaun King and you are listening to (The Breakdown)!
On April 19, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili, an investment banker, was jogging through the west side of Central Park in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, wonderful park, and millions of New Yorkers enjoy it every year. But while out jogging, Trisha Meili was brutally attacked by a serial rapist named Matias Reyes. It was about as violent as an attack could be without killing someone. She lost nearly 80% of her blood. Her skull and face were fractured in 21 places. When she was found, she was naked, gagged and tied up, with injuries so severe that I won’t even repeat them. She was already in a coma, and would stay that way for 12 days. When she arrived at the hospital she was given her last rites and was fully expected to die. When she did wake up, for months she was unable to talk, read, or walk.
As a victim of assault myself, one that took me years, and multiple surgeries to recover from, my heart breaks for Trisha Meili, and for all assault victims. And New York, particularly the white power structure in New York, was determined to get justice.
Trisha Meili had absolutely no recollection of the attack. She still doesn’t to this very day.
But in the park that Spring evening, there were dozens and dozens of neighborhood boys from Harlem. And so five of them, five random boys — many who had never met each other and didn’t even know each other’s names — were rounded by the NYPD, and held against their will. They were Raymond Santana, 14, Kevin Richardson, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Korey Wise, 16.
And so it began. Without a single shred of evidence, nothing at all, officers from the NYPD and prosecutors from the Manhattan DA’s Office began framing these five young boys for the brutal assault of Trisha Meili.
Listen to me. Whoever touched or came near here, would have been covered in her blood and DNA. And none of that was found on a single child. None of them. Not under their nails, not on their clothes, not on their shoes. Nothing. And their DNA would’ve been all over the crime scene, and not a single one of them had DNA, or a footprint, or a fingerprint, or anything at the crime scene.
And when the FBI came in to investigate, they found DNA from just one man at the scene. And let me clear, they didn’t find other DNA that they couldn’t match. It all belonged to one person. And the FBI then compared that DNA up against Raymond, Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Korey – and it didn’t belong to any of them.
And that’s where I need to pause and break down the Supreme Court Case of Imbler v. Pachtman. It may be the single most important case impacting the criminal justice system — and virtually nobody outside of the legal community has heard of it. Let me break it down.
(Break it Down Music)
On January 4, 1961, two men robbed a small corner market in Los Angeles, and, when they did so, they shot and killed the store owner, Morris Hasson. 10 days later, at a different store nearly 30 miles away in Pomona, California, three men attempted to rob the place. Now mind you, Los Angeles is the second biggest city in the nation. It’s not weird for different people to rob different places, 30 miles apart. But something happened at that second robbery. The men bailed out on the robbery attempt, and when they were speeding away in their car, they wrecked it and killed one of the men. The two other men, knowing they were in deep trouble, fled the scene and left the man there. But the next day, Paul Imbler decided to turn himself in.
Are you following me?
So when Paul Imbler turned himself in for the botched robbery, he knew full well he’d go to prison for it, but what he didn’t know is that the LAPD and the LA Prosecutor’s Office were about to frame him for the murder of Morris Hasson from the robbery two weeks earlier.
It was horrible. Paul Imbler had absolutely nothing to do with it. Police knew it. Prosecutors knew it. They didn’t have a single shred of evidence saying otherwise. And in fact, they had dozens of pieces of evidence that conclusively determined that Paul Imbler had nothing to do with it.
Paul Imbler had an alibi. And he had witnesses of his alibi.
A hat and coat that people said Paul Imbler wore during the murder were found. They were three sizes too small. And the witnesses who saw the man who fired the shots said the clothes and hat were too big. The murder weapon was found on the scene, and it had another person’s fingerprint on it.
But guess what happened? The prosecutors hid all of that evidence. Legally we call that suppression of evidence. They hid that evidence knowing damn well that it would exonerate Paul Imbler.
And then they called a star witness,a man named Costello, who told lie after lie about seeing Paul Imbler there. And prosecutors hid the fact that Costello was part of a crime syndicate being run out of that grocery store — and that they basically traded his testimony for going light on him. They allowed him to testify that he was a refrigerator repairman with a college degree — without a criminal record — when he hadn’t gone to college, had a 4 page rap sheet from the FBI and worked in the mob world full time.
And so the jury sentenced Paul Imbler to death for the murder of Morris Hasson — a man he’d never seen before, in a store he had never stepped foot into a single day of his life. And they sent Paul Imbler off to die — which is one of the many reasons I oppose the death penalty — but Paul Imbler fought back. Day after day, month after month, year after year, until finally a lawyer in Michigan and a journalist in San Francisco took on his case.
And they proved lie after lie. And they showed how police and prosecutors worked together to suppress evidence — and manufacture evidence — to convict an innocent man.
Nearly 10 years later, Paul Hasson was finally exonerated. And he began, as he should have, his lawsuits against the prosecutors who knowingly framed him, knowingly suppressed evidence that would have set him free, and knowingly called false witnesses — all to get a conviction. And several courts confirmed that all of that took place. It was undeniable.
But the case ended up getting appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. And that’s the case of Imbler v. Pachtman — Richard Pachtman is the corrupt prosecutor. And in 1976, the court, in an 8-0 decision, made a judgment that only a group of 8 attorneys could ever make — and let’s be clear, Supreme Court justices are lifelong attorneys. In their decisions, they determined that prosecutors have “absolute immunity” from civil suits for prosecutorial misconduct — even if they were knowingly wrong, even if they suppressed evidence on purpose, even if they manufactured fake evidence. They have complete and total immunity for such behaviors. And the justices, in their tragic decision, openly admitted that their decision left defendants, like Paul Imbler, without any recourse, but that prosecutors needed to have the freedom to do whatever they needed to do to secure a conviction.
I hold this decision up, Imbler v. Pachtman, I hold it up as one of the worst, most devastating Supreme Court decisions ever issued on criminal justice. And it’s at the center of how prosecutors were not only able to railroad Paul Imbler, but they’ve literally used these protections to railroad not thousands, but millions of people in the years since. Because prosecutors believe they are untouchable — and they pretty much are — which brings me back to the Central Park Five.
Tomorrow, I’m going to tell us what I think we can do about the case, the horrible police and prosecutors who were involved, and what I think we can do about these legal limitations.
Thank you all for making it all the way through this episode of The Breakdown!
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Produced by Willis Polk II
Extra Production by Christian “Idrys” Shannon & Ryan “Kno” Wisler
Additional Instrumentation by Christian “Idrys” Shannon & Lance “Lance Fury” Powlis
Additional Engineering by Amond “AJ” Jackson for Salem Psalms Library
Additional Vocals by Garnett “Natti” Bush & Jason Coffey
Scratches by Kenny “DJ FlipFlop” Vanderberg