And, in early May, 1989, Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in the Daily News to say what he thought he knew about the case. Trump was on the front page of the papers often enough that season; the Post’s “SPLIT!” headline marking the end of his marriage would help fill the tabloid space between the teen-agers’ arrest and their conviction, as did “MARLA BOASTS TO HER PALS ABOUT DONALD: ‘BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD,’ ” which quoted his then-mistress and second wife; soon, there was also coverage of his baroque business failures. Perhaps he thought it gave him gravitas, that spring, to weigh in on the character of the teen-agers in the park: “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” And his headline suggested what ought to be done with them:
BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.
BRING BACK OUR POLICE!
The “park marauders,” the “roving gang,” the “crazed misfits” were fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old. The confessions they gave, as children, had been false, spun out under the pressure of hours of police interrogations. (They were, had anyone been ready to acknowledge it at the time, also inconsistent; they also had parents whom they weren’t able to see before their questioning.) The boys were sent to prison. One of them, Kharey Wise, who at sixteen was the oldest and sentenced as an adult, was still there when, eleven years after the rape in the park, he happened to cross paths with a prisoner named Matias Reyes. It occurred to Reyes that it was his fault that Wise was there. He confessed that he, and he alone, had raped and beaten Meili, as he had raped other women over the years. He described to police how he had tied her with her clothes; it had been part of his M.O. in other cases, something that gave credibility to his confession. It moved beyond a doubt when a DNA test matched Reyes to the semen found on Meili’s body. The DNA hadn’t matched any of the teen-agers—one of the many details that got blinked over in the trial. They were exonerated twelve years ago, and the charges were formally dropped.