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In Rush To Punish, Are We Missing Something?

Alex, one of the kids who struggles with bullies in Lee Hirsch's documentary <em>Bully</em>.
Weinstein Co.
Alex, one of the kids who struggles with bullies in Lee Hirsch's documentary Bully.

Have you noticed that the good thing about a job and the bad thing about a job are usually the same thing? The good thing and the bad thing about my job is that sometimes there are stories you just cannot get out of your head. Right now, there are two stories like that for me, and they are both kind of tough to talk about, so please be forewarned.

The first one, we talked about last Thursday. That was the anniversary of a terrible crime that riveted New York and much of the country. On April 19, 1989, a young woman who was jogging in Central Park was viciously beaten, raped and left for dead. She lost so much blood that the people who found her doubted she'd survive.

Within days, a group of black and Latino teens was arrested and charged with the crime. Although there was no DNA evidence to tie them to the attack and no eyewitnesses, and their own so-called confessions — made after hours of questioning where no parent or guardian or lawyer was present — had so many inconsistencies, they should never have been taken seriously. But they were. And the five were all convicted and sentenced to years in prison.

Most served their full sentences, until incredibly the real attacker, a serial rapist named Matias Reyes, actually came forward and tried to confess. He had served time with one of the teens, and his conscience — what there was of it — had started to bother him. He told investigators he had reached a point in his life where he wanted to apologize to those whom he had hurt.

And here is where the story gets even uglier, if that's possible. I discovered in reading author Sarah Burns' extensively reported book, The Central Park Five, that the authorities did not want to believe him — even though Reyes' DNA and only his DNA were found on the victim. He raped another woman in the park only the day before he attacked the jogger, and that woman had given a full description. And then Reyes went on to rape five more women after the jogger, one of them a pregnant mother of three, whom he killed.

So let's ponder what might have happened if there had not been a rush to judgment, if there had not been this zeal to prove a foregone conclusion of black and brown teenagers gone wild. Could those five other women have been spared a trauma that surely damaged all of their lives and cost one woman hers?

And speaking of trauma, let's talk about Reyes. How did he become someone who hurt so many, a serial rapist when he was barely out of his teens? New York Times reporter Kevin Flynn reported in 2002 that Reyes' own story was almost as horrific as the trauma he inflicted on others. He said his mother sold him to his father at the age of 2, that he had been assaulted by older boys when he was no older than 7, that he'd been living on the streets since he was 17.

So can we ask what would have happened if anyone had noticed? If anyone had tried to help him before he became a violent predator targeting women who happened to cross his path?

Can I just tell you? What's so wrong with asking why? Have we become so small as a nation that we can't ask big questions? Not just, "Can we get the bad guy?" — but, "Why is the guy so bad and what can we do about it?"

Which leads me to the other story that haunts me: The documentary Bully is now out in theaters, and you might have heard about the kerfuffle around its rating. Initially, the MPAA rated it R because of some rough language; they worked that out, and now it's PG-13. Apart from all that, the film takes a deep look into the lives of a handful of teens who have experienced bullying and the effects on them. The movie is sad and powerful in describing the pain of those who are bullied. But the scene that stays with me is the one where Alex, a 12-year-old whose unusual features seem to make him a target for abuse, asks a boy who's punching him, "Why are you doing this?"

It's unfortunate that the film never gets around to asking that question. What if one of those kids whaling on Alex is in for the same thing at home but can't tell? What if one of those kids is a Reyes in the making, but nobody's noticing?

Which leads me to ask: If a 12-year-old boy has the courage to ask why, why don't we?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.