A 15-year-old lad, questioned through the dead of night by relays of police, is a ready victim of the inquisition.... We cannot believe that a lad of tender years is a match for the police in such a contest. He needs counsel and support if he is not to become the victim first of fear, then of panic. He needs someone on whom to lean lest the overpowering presence of the law, as he knows it, crush him.
--U.S. Supreme Court decision, 1948, in Haley v. Ohio, a case in which a black boy falsely confessed to murder
The crime thundered across the airwaves and onto the newsstands. On April 19, 1989, a young, white investment banker, jogging in Central Park, was bludgeoned, raped, and left to die. The police soon charged a marauding group of Harlem teens with gang rape. The tabloid headlines pumped fear into horror. WOLF PACK'S PREY, announced the New York Daily News, in its first of many page-one stories. "Wilding--the newest term for terror in a city that lives in fear," announced the New York Post on April 22. "Wilding" was defined by the Post writers as a phenomenon not unlike the violent raves in A Clockwork Orange--"packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence."
In his April 23, 1989, piece in the Post, A SAVAGE DISEASE, Pete Hamill, the celebrated city columnist, painted a menacing backdrop that would color the coverage to come:They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land with no fathers.... They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor. And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.
City editors pitched in and drafted a powerful story line on the order of "Heroic Woman vs. Feral Beast." David Krajicek, who covered the rape as police bureau chief for the Daily News, recalls that reporters were under tremendous pressure to stay true to the top-down narrative. And in the competitive frenzy surrounding the story, that narrative took on a life of its own, ultimately slashing the city into two angry parts--white and black, Wall Street and Harlem, law-abiding adults and barbaric youth. There was little room for nuance. The image of savage kids rampaging through the city's streets was branded into the national consciousness. The boys, some oversized and awkward, others wiry and defiant, became easy targets to mock, easy to degrade as animals, to dismiss as other people's children. Almost every member of the white-dominated press accepted without much question that mindless black and Latino adolescents could go from wreaking violent havoc in the park that night to carrying out a vicious gang rape.