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The Jogger: A Case, Not a Cause

LONG criminal trials can be ordeals for cities as well as for individuals - especially when a trial has racial and political overtones. This has been the recent experience of Washington, D.C., during Mayor Barry's trial; and of New York during the trial of three teenage boys for the rape and nearly fatal beating of a young woman jogger in Central Park last year. The ``jogger trial'' ended Saturday with convictions of the three black and Hispanic youths who were part of a gang that robbed and assaulted several people, including the white runner, during a night of ``wilding'' in the park (three more boys remain to be tried). Two of the three youths had given videotaped confessions to police, and the third boy had made a written confession. Nonetheless, in response to defense contentions that the confessions were coerced, the jury deliberated for 10 days before reaching its verdicts.

By jurors' accounts, the 10 days were intense, acrimonious, and exhausting. But the mixed-race group of 12 men and women accepted their responsibility with high purposefulness and a commitment to justice. The painstaking care with which they reviewed the defendants' confessions, other evidence, and the judge's instructions belie the assertion, made by some supporters of the boys, that community pressure dictated the verdicts.

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Now New York, like Washington, must try to put the emotional and divisive trial behind it. Racial tensions in New York are still smoldering from the Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, and Tawana Brawley cases. Mayor David Dinkins was elected to bring New York's quiltwork communities closer together. This will be another test of his leadership.

He will be helped if people on both sides eschew stereotypes and take care in drawing sweeping socio-political conclusions from the case. With all the riddles about the wilding spree itself, the episode shouldn't give rise to facile characterizations of the ``urban jungle.'' And blacks aren't served by the efforts of some demagogues to whip up resentment against the ``white man's'' system.

New York's criminal justice system did its job. Now other institutions of melioration and healing must do theirs.

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