SUSAN KEEGAN & The Central Park Five
by Karen Feiden
The Central Park Five, the newly released Ken Burns documentary about five black and Hispanic teenagers railroaded through the New York City criminal justice system for a rape they did not commit, does not at first glance seem to have much in common with the unsolved homicide of Ukiah resident Susan Keegan.
The two incidents occurred two decades and a continent apart, and the color, class and life experiences of those involved could not be more different. One became a national icon of urban decay and the failure of public safety. The other has drawn little attention beyond Mendocino County, except perhaps in the homes of a few scattered friends and family members who still clamor for justice. One is about a rush to judgment, the other about justice delayed.
And yet there are parallels, beyond the fact that some of Susan Keegan’s ashes have been scattered just a few minutes’ walk from the notorious 102nd St. pathway in the northern end of Manhattan’s Central Park, where a jogger once hovered at the edge of death.
In April 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker was dragged into the bushes, beaten and raped with horrifying savagery, and left in a coma from which she was not expected to emerge. That same night, dozens of teenagers entered the park together and engaged in a string of assaults, including trying to steal a bike and throwing stones at another runner.
Five boys, ages 14 to 16, were arrested for the lesser assaults. Then, the young woman’s fractured body was discovered and the rape charge was added on. The Central Park Jogger case, as it quickly came to be known, generated an outcry, with the newspapers, the city government and the public demanding punishment in fierce, shrill language.
After two trials that made tabloid headlines for weeks, all five teens were convicted of gang rape and multiple counts of assault and ultimately served between seven and 13 years in prison. In 2002, long after most of them had been released, another man confessed to being the sole assailant, and DNA evidence backed his claim. Ken Burns argues convincingly in his documentary that the boys were scapegoats, symbols of all that had gone haywire in a seemingly lawless city. Every one of their convictions was vacated.
It was a shocking miscarriage of justice, to be sure, but what does any of it have to do with Susan Keegan?
Susan Keegan was found dead in her home in November 2010, and 21 months later, a death certificate was issued reporting the cause as homicide. Authorities report there is a “person of interest,” widely believed to be the physician to whom Susan was married for 32 years. The couple was in the midst of bitter divorce negotiations. Mendocino law enforcement has not explained why no one has been charged in the case.
Here are the common threads. First, faulty assumptions were made immediately in both cases – the troublemaking black and Hispanic kids must have committed a crime, the white, Harvard-educated physician could not have done so.
The cops in New York did not wait for evidence before concluding that the boys who threw rocks at one runner must be the same boys who raped another. Because they were “certain,” they ignored the timeline that would have shown their reconstruction of events to be impossible.
The cops arriving at the Keegan residence the morning after Susan’s death likewise jumped to conclusions. Their failure to identify the home as a crime scene, and ask hard questions about the husband’s version of events, injured an investigation that might have cast doubt on his story of Susan’s hidden drug abuse. Seven months would pass before law enforcement returned to the house, armed with a search warrant, to take a closer look.
Second, the nature of authority comes into play – the powerless yield to the powerful. In a setting that involves both New York City cops and teenage boys from a public housing project, it is obvious who gets to call the shots and who is vulnerable. That’s a lot less clear when Mendocino County cops knock on a physician’s door and greet a take-charge man who at another place and time might have offered them life-saving treatment. Who’s really in charge then?
Third, friends and family struggle to do more than howl into the wind. The families of the falsely charged boys faced a criminal justice system and a public that had instantly made up its mind. No one was listening when they insisted the cops had gotten it wrong.
Likewise, within hours of her death, Susan Keegan’s closest connections bombarded the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office with requests to pay attention – to conduct a careful autopsy, to safeguard evidence before it could be destroyed, to probe deeply into the highly suspicious circumstances of her death.
It is not clear that anyone listened there, either.
Whatever their similarities and differences, the two cases stand as powerful reminders of the imperative of justice – justice for suspects, justice for victims, and justice for those left behind to give voice to them both. It’s not easy to right a wrong, once an error has been made. A civilized society needs to trust that its criminal justice professionals will work swiftly, vigorously and without prejudice on behalf of all its members.
It is too late to make up for the injustice that those hapless teenage boys, most of them now struggling men, have suffered. The years they lost behind bars can never be redeemed.
But it is not too late to make up for the delays in prosecuting the Susan Keegan case. Whatever the early errors in evidence-gathering, the challenge of trying a defendant who can afford prominent legal counsel, and the other pressures on a resource-strapped law-enforcement community, a two-year wait is long enough. A homicide has occurred, and the suspect should be charged. It is time for the District Attorney of Mendocino County to act on the evidence.
MENDO SUPERVISORS Dan Hamburg and John McCowen have invited Mendocino Redwood Company President and Chief Forester Mike Jani and Forest Operations Manager John Ramaley to make a presentation on the Mendocino Redwood Company’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and related documents that are currently available for public comment and review. HCPs are intended to provide landscape-wide, long term plans for forest stewardship and production. Approval of the proposed HCP, a Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP) and the associated Timber Management Plan will authorize the take of protected species incidental to otherwise lawful timber operations over the 80-year life of the HCP. The stated intent is to create mature, multi-storied forests using selection harvesting while maintaining old-growth trees and facilitating habitat development for rare, threatened and endangered species. The plans project increases in stocking over the 80-year period from a current level of 13,500 to 29,000 board feet per acre while improving habitat for protected fish and wildlife species and reducing the amount of sedimentation entering streams. The plans also project increased conifer inventory and thus, increased forest productivity. Public meetings on the referenced plans will be held at the following dates, times and locations: (1) December 11, 2012, 7pm to 9pm, Redwood Empire Fair Fine Arts Building, 1055 N. State Street, Ukiah, CA; and (2) December 12, 2012, 7pm to 9pm, C.V. Starr Center, 300 S. Lincoln St., Fort Bragg, CA. Comments may be submitted in writing to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection before 5:00 PM, February 21, 2013.
MRC’S PRESENTATION TO THE BOARD of Supervisors is a very simplified overview of a very complex, long-term document in which MRC uses 16 full-color Power Point slides (the primary ones are shown below) to convince the public that their logging plans for the next 80 years will be positive and problem free. It does not address pesticide use, or provide any specifics about logging plans, sediment reduction or other activities in MRC’s vast Mendocino County holdings. The discussion is “information only” — the Board of Supervisors will take public input but does not plan to make any decisions on the subject.
Mike Jani, President & Chief Forester, (707) 463-5114 — firstname.lastname@example.org
John Ramaley, Forest Operations Manager, (707) 463-5129 – email@example.com
DA OPPOSES PAROLE for killer of Mendocino Coast Contractor — Mendocino County prosecutors are asking for public support in their bid to oppose parole for a Point Arena man serving a life sentence for the 1990 killing of a well-known coast contractor Wallace Herbert Kuntz. Cameron Whitlock, who is serving a life sentence, is seeking parole at a hearing scheduled for Jan. 16 at Solano State Prison in Vacaville. He was last denied parole in 2008 by the state Board of Prison Terms. Whitlock was convicted by a Mendocino County Superior Court jury in May, 1990 of second-degree murder, robbery and vehicle theft. District Attorney David Eyster described the killing of contractor Kuntz as “tragic and senseless.” Kuntz was married and the father of two children at the time of his death 22 years ago. Kuntz was at a construction site on the Point Arena Indian Reservation when he was killed. Investigators said Kuntz was sitting in his pickup truck getting reading to drive home when Whitlock walked up to the driver’s side window and shot him in the head. Whitlock then climbed into the truck and shot Kuntz again, investigators said. Whitlock drove the victim’s truck with the body still inside about two miles, then pulled over and dragged the victim’s body from the vehicle, according to trial testimony. Whitlock covered Kuntz’ body with brush, and set it on fire. Eyster said in cases like Whitlock’s, the state prison board by law must consider public sentiment. “We’re asking the public to join us in voicing opposition to parole for Whitlock, said Eyster. Individual letters of opposition should be sent by Dec. 18 to the District Attorney’s Office, P.O. Box 1000, Ukiah, Ca. 95482. (DA Press Release, Dec. 4, 2012)
GRAND JURY SEEKS JURORS — Do you want to know what is happening to County Mental Health Services, how government officials are spending our tax monies, or why pensions bestowed on county employees are impacting the financial sustainability of government services? These are the type of issues that your county Grand Jury investigates and require responses from our public servants. We are fortunate to live in California which is only one of two states to have a mandated panel of citizens in every county who oversee all county, municipal, and special district functions. Citizens' complaints, the panel's own area of concern, and specific topics are examined through interviews, observations and research. Reports are then published for the public available at: www.co.mendocino.ca.us/grandjury. Designated officials are then mandated to respond, in a timely manner, to specific recommendations made by the Grand Jury . These responses are also available on the website. The responses are monitored as to their claims of implementation, veracity, and impossibility and reviewed for consideration by next year's Grand Jury . In this era of economic uncertainity, the citizens of our county have a unique opportunity to see beneath the surface of political rhetoric and impact the decisions made by our elected and appointed government officials. If you want to have the chance to meet, face to face, the people who make our governmental decisions for us, and if you really want to know what is happening in this county, you can apply for membership on next year's Grand Jury on the website. You will feel proud to serve our community with your participation in this truly democratic process. (Carol Rosenberg, Mendocino Grand Jury)