Five men receive $51m settlement for wrong conviction in Central Park rape case

(Front, from left) Wrongly convicted "Central Park Five" members Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam attend a news conference announcing the payout for the case at City Hall in New York on June 27, 2014. A US federal judge ha
(Front, from left) Wrongly convicted "Central Park Five" members Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam attend a news conference announcing the payout for the case at City Hall in New York on June 27, 2014. A US federal judge has approved a US$41 million (S$51 million) settlement for five men wrongfully convicted for the brutal 1989 rape and attempted murder of a white jogger in New York's Central Park. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - A US federal judge has approved a US$41 million (S$51 million) settlement for five men wrongfully convicted for the brutal 1989 rape and attempted murder of a white jogger in New York's Central Park.

The settlement ended a civil rights lawsuit over the "Central Park Jogger" case that lasted decades.

The men, all black or Hispanic teenagers from Harlem at the time, were falsely convicted of nearly killing 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili while "wilding" - gangs assaulting strangers - through the park on a warm April night.

Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the settlement, which will see each of the wrongly accused receive about US$1 million for each year of imprisonment, as an "act of justice for those five men that is long overdue." His predecessor Michael Bloomberg had fought the case.

"With today's approval by a federal judge, we can finally put this case behind us, and these five men and their families can begin to heal these wounds and move forward," de Blasio added.

The city did not admit any wrongdoing, with senior lawyer Zachary Carter saying that "both the investigating detectives and the assistant district attorneys involved in the case acted reasonably."

The case was a crucible for tensions and fears in New York at a time when race relations were fraught, a crack cocaine epidemic ravaged poor communities, violent crime was rampant and the gulf between rich and poor gaped wide.

Meili went for a night run in northern Central Park, was ambushed on a dark path and dragged into a ravine where she was beaten, sexually assaulted and left for dead.

She gradually recovered but had no memory of the attack, leaving police and prosecutors under intense pressure from media outlets and terrified New Yorkers to find the assailants.

Within hours, investigators picked up the five teenagers in a sweep of the area and interrogated them at length, often without the presence of an attorney or a parent at first.

Despite dramatic holes in the case against them and no DNA match from the crime scene, all were convicted. The teenagers spent between six and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he had attacked Meili alone.

Their case was turned into a film, "The Central Park Five", that premiered at Cannes in 2012.