Designed by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Prospect Park in Brooklyn is one of New York City’s most picturesque parks. Like so many of New York’s parks, Prospect Park is a place where frazzled city-dwellers can go for while to just escape the metropolis. Also, like so many of New York’s parks, it isn’t always safe to travel through alone.
That’s not to say that all of New York City’s parks are the dangerous back alleys they are portrayed to be on Law and Order SVU, mind you. But danger can lurk in even the most placid and pristine of places, especially if you’re alone.
Assault in ’94
Jane was only 27 years old when the incident happened. It was April 26th, 1994, and she had been walking through Prospect Park at dusk. At around 5 p.m., Jane was attacked and sexually assaulted by a bearded stranger. When he was done, he left her there, alive but deeply affected by the abuse.
Something Is Off
Jane called the police immediately after the assault and before long, two policemen had arrived at the scene. The two officers proceeded to drive her around the park, stopping periodically to question men who looked nothing like the initial description she had given. Right from the start, she could tell that they didn’t believe her.
The still-shaky victim informed the officers that as a black woman, this type of profiling behavior made her feel very unforgettable and a bit unsafe. They appeared to respond angrily to this and that anger only made them further doubt that she had been telling the truth. Pained and humiliated, she asked them to take her to the station.
Once she’d arrived at the police station, Jane filled out an official report of the crime. She completed a thorough rape kit, then gave a full description of her attacker to the police sketch artist. As it happened, the likeness she had given was a fairly good one, but no one would realize that fact until many years after the trail for her attacker had gone cold.
Right from the start, Jane’s case was plagued with problems. The first of which involved the DNA testing. Unfortunately, the crime scene investigators had botched the process by commingling Jane’s DNA and that of her attacker. As a result, the lab couldn’t subtract the two from one another to get a solid profile.
Jane’s jogging shorts had semen samples on them, but the subsequent DNA tests on that sample would ultimately provide little viable evidence towards a conviction. The initial testing issues were further complicated by the fact that the police officials in charge didn’t seem to know how to properly read a DNA report, let alone detect an erroneous one.
The botched DNA evidence, coupled with the initial doubt police expressed at the onset of the case, created what Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce described as “a perfect storm.” Daily News columnist Mike McAlary, who has since passed, leaned heavily on these doubts and alleged in his subsequent article that Jane’s attack was little more than a hoax.
Dark Years Pass
For the next two decades, Jane lived with the shame and humiliation of what had befallen her. The case remained unsolved and the already cold trail her attacker had left, froze over completely. Worse yet, the Daily News had vilified her as a liar, saying that she had made the whole assault up to get a little notoriety.
Close And Reopen
Recently, the Prospect Park case was reopened. DNA testing had come a long way since 1994 and investigators were convinced that modern techniques could successfully separate Jane’s DNA from that of her attacker on the old evidence. Jane, who was tired of living with this nagging doubt and uncertainty, consented to giving them a new DNA sample.
Once they had isolated Jane’s DNA profile, they entered the newly extracted suspect’s DNA into the CODIS system, which had not existed in 1994. This system, otherwise known as the Combined DNA Index System, was developed by the FBI and is used for matching DNA profiles in DNA databases.
A Matching Criminal
The DNA came back matching the profile of 67-year-old convicted rapist, James Edward Webb. After 24 years, the New York City Police Department finally had a suspect, and they had him in custody already. Webb was currently serving a life sentence in Sing Sing for four other rapes and is not eligible for parole until 2070.
History of Violence
James Edward Webb had a pretty prolific history of violence and assault. In fact, he had been arrested and had been serving time for six other rapes before he was released from jail in 1993. Then, he allegedly attacked Jane in Prospect Park and went on to commit four other sexual assaults until he was captured again.
Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce recalled the case in great detail. He remembered that because of his history of sexual assault, the department had questioned Webb at the time. His alibi and the lack of evidence had been enough to send him on his way, but Boyce still felt guilty about how the department and New York City as a whole had treated Jane back in ’94.
They Had Known
When detectives arrived at her home to tell her the good news, the now 51-year-old wept openly. The end of the investigation brought an end to Jane’s suffering at last. Of course, there was still the matter of her well-deserved apology. Thankfully, the NYPD was already planning to address that as well.
NYPD official John J. Miller, who is now deputy commissioner for intelligence and counter-terrorism, gave his statement of apology to Jane’s lawyer. He acknowledged that he had inappropriately allowed speculation by investigators to sway his thinking during the course of the investigation. He had also shared these reservations with others.
Obviously, this speculation over whether or not Jane was lying ultimately proved to be incorrect and Mr. Miller admitted as much in the end. The mishandling of evidence was no excuse for that serious misjudgment on his part. He also admitted to having, however inadvertently, “re-victimized a person who was already the victim of a terrible crime.”
Apologies to All
Miller offered his sincerest apologies to Jane for all of it. “As a police official, even one whose job was to deal with the press, I had a higher obligation to the citizens we serve, especially the witnesses to and victims of crime,” he admitte. “While I learned that lesson 24 years ago, I most regret that it was at the expense of one of those who had the courage to come forward.”
The Long Haul
Thus far, it is unclear if there will be any additional charges for Webb. Being that he’s already 67-years old, it is unlikely he will be making it to his 2070 release at any rate. And yet, the desires to see him pay for his crimes is still something that many will argue must be done if Jane’s assault is to be validated.
Jane does have some closure at this point, but nothing will make up for the two decades of pain she felt because of the attack, or the two decades of uncertainty she felt because of the fallout from reporting it. What happened to Jane is an all-too-common occurrence these days and it’s something that many people feel brave enough to come forward and report.
Jane traces the arc of her experiences at this point to the current #MeToo movement. By her own admission, the #MeToo phenomenon is not a movement at all, but an ongoing reality for many women. She admits that the police and newspapers calling her a liar had a silencing effect on her for some time and she wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way.