Risen from Near Death, the Central Park Jogger Makes Her Day in Court One to Remember

updated 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Call your next witness."

New York State Supreme Court Justice Thomas B. Galligan had intoned that instruction to the prosecution 33 times before in the trial of three New York teenagers accused of the gang rape and attempted murder of the woman known as the Central Park Jogger. But after a three-week procession of cops and forensic experts and seven less seriously injured victims of the infamous April 1989 rampage, this was the moment in which a crime of the most searing brutality would be given a face.

The victim is known simply as the Jogger—because the press traditionally protects the privacy of rape victims—but she has a name, and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer spoke it. "The People call..."

The summons could scarcely have been more dramatic had the biblical Lazarus been called to the stand, for through the side door of the court would come a woman who was all but literally back from the dead. The frenzied mob of some dozen young men that allegedly attacked her as she ran alone on a deserted road at about 9:30 one pleasant spring night had silenced her screams and stilled her desperate struggles by smashing her face and skull over and over again with a brick, a rock and a lead pipe. After being raped and sodomized, she was left naked in a mud puddle, bound and gagged with her own bloody shirt. Two men walking home through the park discovered her at 1:30 A.M. and summoned help. By the time an ambulance arrived 25 minutes later, she had lost two-thirds of her blood. Her pulse rate had fallen to 40, her body temperature to 80°F. Doctors were doubtful she would live. But during the next 15 months, she fought her way out of a coma and back to work as an investment banker. Every step of the way she had to contend with the fact that her private pain had become an international drama. The Jogger became a symbol of urban crime, of violence against women, of racial antipathy.

Now the door swung open, and a young woman hobbled up the steps to the witness chair. Carrying only 90 lbs. on her 5'5" frame, with her blond hair cut in a pixieish wedge, she bore a resemblance to actress Sandy Duncan. After being sworn in, her hand trembling on the Bible, she was asked to state her name. She gave it in a strong, clear voice, and in that instant reclaimed herself from the headlines. She was no longer a symbol, but a woman—somebody's sister, somebody's daughter, a human being who looks in the mirror each morning and sees a scarred face looking back.

It once seemed incredible that that face would ever be seen in the courtroom. Doctors had speculated that the brain damage that left the woman comatose for two weeks might keep her from walking or talking again. A month after the attack, she had trouble recognizing her mother and couldn't remember what year it was. At best, specialists had predicted, she had only a 50-50 chance of ever being able to dress and feed herself. But after seven weeks in the hospital, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center, and seven months later she returned to work at the investment banking house of Salomon Brothers, though she must take a daily break for rehabilitative therapy. She has even resumed jogging, with colleagues alongside to steady her.

"If you had seen her last May and compared how she was then to how she is now, you'd have to believe in God," says a friend. "I think this is one of the rare cases where one's will and inner strength over-come the worst of physical setbacks."

That same will strengthened the woman's determination to testify, reportedly over the objections of her family. Intent upon maintaining her anonymity, she did obtain a court order barring courtroom artists from sketching her face. But nothing would stop her from doing what she believed was her responsibility to aid in the prosecution of the defendants—Yusef Salaam, 16, Antron McCray, 16, and Raymond Santana, 15—who, as youthful offenders, face maximum prison terms of five to 10 years. Three other teens also charged with her rape will be tried later.

After eliciting basic information—the woman is 30, single, and came to New York City in 1986—Lederer moved to the heart of the testimony that was to be presented to the 10-man, two-woman jury. "For what reason did you run at night?"

"Because running was something I enjoyed to do quite a bit and because of my hours at work," said the witness, her nervousness evident only in the tight grip of one manicured hand on the other.

"Can you tell the members of the jury, please, what you remember about April 19 of 1989?" The woman, her right eye sometimes wandering, described her workday, then recalled the tiny decision that changed her life. "I remember a phone conversation I had about 5 o'clock in the evening with a person I was going to have dinner with that night, but I had to say I couldn't go to dinner because I had some more work to do. And I was going to be at work a few more hours."

That schedule put her in the park at the wrong time, but mercifully her brain injuries blotted out any recollection of the horror that befell her there. "Do you have any memory whatsoever of what happened to you in the park on April 19, 1989?" asked Lederer.

"No, I do not." In fact, the witness explained, she remembered nothing between the 5 P.M. dinner conversation and awakening in a hospital room more than five weeks later. She could not identify the defendants as her attackers—she never looked at them in court—but few legal observers doubted that her testimony had sealed their fate, if indeed it needed sealing. McCray and Santana had given videotaped confessions, and police claimed they had notes of admissions by Salaam.

But the defendants' attorneys insisted their clients' statements were coerced, and the trial had until the victim's appearance remained an abstract puzzle, if a particularly graphic one: Gory color photos of all the woman's injuries had been prominently displayed. Through her presence, the crime now became chillingly real.

"Do you recognize People's 33 in evidence?"

"Yes, I do," said the woman, anxiously licking her scarred lower lip.

"What do you recognize this to be?"

"It's the shirt that I used to wear."

"Prior to April 19, what color was this shirt?" the prosecutor then asked her.

"It was white." The shirt in Lederer's hands was a distinctive shade of brown, caked as it was with dried blood.

The witness moved on bravely to tie up a loose end in the prosecution's case. DNA tests had failed to identify any semen on the woman as that of the accused (giving rise to an assumption that at least one rapist is still at large), but traces on her clothing were matched to her boyfriend. She explained that she had had sexual relations with him, and then gone running, three days before the attack. Finally, as her 12 minutes of testimony came to a close, she described the injuries she lives with: Problems with balance cause her to veer right or left when she walks; she needs help with stairs; she has completely lost her sense of smell; she suffers double vision. "Do you have any scarring?" the prosecutor asked.

"Yes, I do," she said.

"I have no further questions," said Lederer. As defense attorneys huddled over their next move, the woman flashed a smile at her supporters packing a back row. Then each defense counsel rose in turn and said, "I have no questions."

At that moment, the grim-faced jurors appeared not to have any either.

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