Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Central Park Five And America’s Broken Justice System

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Nearly 30 years after five black and latino teens were wrongfully convicted of rape and other crimes, the Central Park Five remain one of most glaring examples of a broken justice system that helped lay the groundwork for America to become the most incarcerated country in the world.

Although it is estimated that only 1 percent (or 20,000) of the 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are serving time for crimes that they did not commit, many wrongful conviction cases are never discovered. Nonetheless, the number of people in the U.S. exonerated for crimes has seen a steady incline over the years. In 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations reported a record high of as many as 171 exonerations, some with convictions dating back to the 1960s. The number dropped slightly in 2017 to 131 exonerations.

On April 19, 1989, a 29-year-old white investment banker was raped and beaten while jogging in Central Park. Police wrongfully arrested 14-year-old Raymond Santana, 14-year-old Kevin Richardson, 15-year-old Antron McCray, 15-year-old Yusef Salaam, 15, and 16-year-old Korey Wise for the rape as well as crimes against others in the park (police said that the sexual assault coincided with a crime spree in Central Park involving several teenagers).

The woman, originally dubbed “The Central Park Jogger,” was the victim of a brutal attack that left her comatose for almost two weeks.

The five accused juveniles, who didn’t know each other prior to the case, endured hours of interrogations until they were successfully coerced into implicating one another and confessing to crimes of which they were innocent. False confessions are a not-so-uncommon occurrence according to the Innocence Project, which estimates that at least 25 percent of people who were wrongfully convicted and exonerated through DNA evidence, made a “false confession or incriminating statement.”

On the surface, the Central Park Five had all the makings of a racially charged horror story that played into the fears of a city in turmoil. By the close of the decade, New York City reportedly averaged at least nine rapes per day, five murders, close to 200 aggravated assaults, and 255 robberies. The crack epidemic was taking its toll on black and brown communities, while gentrification, lack of job opportunities, and poor educational resources in marginalized areas, deepened the divide between the rich and poor.

Running concurrent with the rising number of crimes was misconduct within NYPD, much of which would be retroactively exposed. From pumping drugs and guns into specific neighborhoods, to bribes, coverups, drug dealing, and racial targeting, the lawlessness bloomed into a number of NYPD scandals over the three decades.

Santana, Richardson, McCray, Salaam, and Wise were subsequently swept into a systematic conspiracy to convict the innocent.

The Trial

America’s longstanding judicial principal of “innocent until proven guilty” wasn’t an option for the Central Park Five. The media, and the NYPD worked as co-conspirators in flipping a narrative, dehumanizing the teens as an angry “wolf pack” on the hunt for prey. Police claimed that as many as “a dozen youths” were roaming the park that night on a “vicious rampage.”

CREDIT: Getty Images

Donald Trump turned the heavily publicized case into an opportunity to further his transition from New York City real-estate executive to a “celebrity” figure by playing into the media fury.

Trump spearhead a slanderous campaign calling the boys “animals” at a press conference. “You better believe that I hate the people that took the girl and raped her brutally. And it’s more than anger, it’s hatred. And I want society to hate them,” he said.

He also took out full-page adds in four major New York City newspapers with the headline, “Bring Back the Death Penalty, Bring Back our Police.”

If the media firestorm surrounding the Central Park Five grew to  a massive inferno, then Trump was the “fire starter,” Salaam told The Guardian in 2016.

“People wanted to see how the justice system would work… they were looking at this [case] to see whether the justice system would actually be just or not,” Salaam explained. “It became very clear that there was this huge black and white kind of thing. These black and brown individuals had raped a white woman in Central Park. That was the worst thing that anyone could have ever done.”

“Common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that we were guilty,” he added. “The simple premise was that if your name was in the paper, if you look like a criminal because the color of your skin, you have to be guilty.”

Trials And Convictions

Despite inconsistent physical evidence and conflicting confessions, in August of 1990 Salaam, McCray, and Santana were convicted of rape, assault, robbery and riot, but were acquitted of attempted murder charges.

CREDIT: Getty Images

Four months later, 14-year-old Richardson (pictured above) was convicted of attempted murder, in addition to the same charges as the aforementioned teens. He was sentenced to 5-10 years.

Wise, who was 16 at the time, was convicted of sexual abuse, assault and riot, and sentenced to 5-15 years.

The five would go on to serve between six and 13 years in prison, but as Salaam shared with The Guardian, “When you think about going to jail for a crime that you didn’t commit, one day in jail is too long.”

The Exoneration

By the turn of the millennium, advances in DNA evidence and a chance confession helped free the Central Park Five.

In 2001, Matias Reyes, confessed to committing the rape and attack of Trisha Ellen Meili who officially confirmed that she was the “Central Park Jogger” in a 2004 memoir. Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, was serving a life sentence at the time of his confession. He was never prosecuted for crimes against Meili because the statute of limitations had passed.

The following year, New York Supreme Court vacated convictions for all five of the defendants, but not everyone was ready to believe that they were innocent. A legal panel formed by ex-New York City Commissioner Raymond Kelly attempted to poke holes in Reyes’ credibility and denounced the assertion that he acted alone.

In 2003, the legal panel concluded that the Central Park Five “most likely” participated in beating and raping the jogger, and that no misconduct took place during the police investigation.

The Aftermath

In 2003, the Central Park Five sued New York City for racial discrimination, malicious prosecution, and emotional distress. In 2014, the city finally agreed to a $41 million settlement. The men of the Central Park Five sought an additional $52 million in a lawsuit against New York State that has yet to be settled.

New York is one of 32 states, along with the District of Columbia, that have set compensation statues for wrongful convictions. Since the 2014 Central Park Five settlement, the city of New York has paid out more than $50 million to settle other wrongful conviction lawsuits.

See more on the Central Park Five in the video below.