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Legal tab mounts as New York fights 'Central Park Jogger' case

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ten years, 30,000 hours and nearly $6 million.

That's the tally of what the civil lawsuit stemming from the infamous Central Park Jogger case has cost New York City to defend, according to records provided to Reuters this month in response to a Freedom of Information request.

The case was filed in 2003 by the five black and Hispanic men who, as teenagers, were convicted of the brutal 1989 rape of Trisha Meili in Manhattan's Central Park after four of them confessed during lengthy police interrogations. The shocking assault, at a time when the city struggled to contain sky-high crime rates, made national headlines.

The convictions were overturned in 2002, after a serial rapist in prison for other crimes admitted to the attack and his DNA was found to match evidence collected from the scene. By then, the men - Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam - had been released from prison after serving various sentences.

Despite calls from civil rights leaders and other critics, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has declined to settle, with its lawyers insisting that the city cannot be held liable for a properly conducted investigation.

"We are focused on defending the city because the civil lawsuit is not about guilt or innocence," said a spokeswoman for the city's law department. "It's about whether the police and prosecutors acted with malice and wrongdoing. They did not."

Lawyers for the five men, whose lawsuit seeks $250 million in damages, claim the confessions were coerced by investigators who knew they were likely false.

"There's never been even a nominal offer," said Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The impending end of Bloomberg's tenure as mayor could signal a change in the city's stance, however.

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate who has opened up a commanding lead in polls against Republican Joseph Lhota, said in January it was time for the city to settle.

DOCUMENTARY SUBJECT

"As a city, we have a moral obligation to right this injustice," he said at the time, in a statement his campaign provided again this week in response to an inquiry. "It is in our collective interest - the wrongly accused, their families and the taxpayer - to settle this case and not let another year slip by without action."

A campaign spokeswoman for Lhota said it would be inappropriate to comment until he is briefed by the city's corporation counsel after being elected mayor.

City records show that its attorneys have spent just under 30,000 hours working on the case. Based on their salaries and overhead, the city estimated the cost at $4.3 million, or approximately $144 per hour, a far lower rate than that of private attorneys.

Other litigation expenses amounted to $1.6 million as of June 3, according to the most recent records available; the city's database does not break down those costs individually, according to a public records official.

The city's law department noted that the 150-page lawsuit includes 18 plaintiffs and 20 defendants and concerns a 24-year-old case as well as two separate re-investigations. All told, the litigation involves more than 150 parties, including witnesses, and tens of thousands of documents.

At a recent hearing in the case, the city had nine members of its legal team in court; there were seven attorneys on hand for the plaintiffs.

The horrific attack, in which Meili was beaten nearly to death, became an emblem of out-of-control street crime in a city rife with racial tension.

Since then, the case has become a symbol of a different sort, raising difficult questions about the interplay between race and the criminal justice system.

Last year, the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his daughter, Sarah, released a movie about the case, "The Central Park Five," that depicted the five men as victims of a flawed investigation egged on by overheated media coverage.

"I'm glad people are talking about it," Sarah Burns said. "I think it's a shame that this case has gone on for so long, and for so long nobody was paying attention to it."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh)

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