Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam,  Raymond Santana, Jr.   

The convictions of the five young men centered around their videotaped confessions and these were the key elements in the jury’s verdict since there was no other evidence that they had committed this horrible crime.  There was no DNA evidence, the semen in Meili’s body matched none of the five, there were no eyewitnesses, no fingerprints, no blood on any of the Five’s clothing, no scratches, bruises, scrapes or cuts on their bodies that one would expect from such a violent act. In other words, none of the usual evidence that goes into the substantiation of such serious criminal charges.  The three early morning videotaped confessions (the Five were rounded up a few hours after Meili was found) were a mess.  They contradicted each other in terms of when the rape took place, where the rape took place, who committed the rape, what was used to beat Trisha Meili bloody and pretty much every single “fact” of the crime.  While watching “The Central Park Five," one can’t help but cringe as the taped confessions show each young man giving up all his rights, including the right to an attorney, while looking as if they have no clue to what is actually going on around them.   And you can’t help but think, “This is just so wrong.  These are teenagers, for God’s sake, who have no idea what’s a stake or what’s in store for them.”  Although not brought up during their trials, the Five were promised that with their confessions they would be released; they could all go home.  Which is exactly what the Five wanted more than anything else that night.

But after trials by juries, they were found guilty. New Yorkers and the nation (their arrests and trials were breathlessly covered in the national media) agreed with the jury.  Justice had been done. 

What remained unaddressed, however, was the issue of Five Black Teenage Men raping a White woman.  The racial implications. It was this aspect of the case that inflamed the passions of White America exposing and unleashing one of the fundamental fears of the nation since the time when slaves were first imported into America.   And, as we have seen recently, the principal “take away” for the public was how uncivilized, violent, vicious and immoral, were The Central Park Five Black men.   If you recall Ferguson and Baltimore or the Black Lives Matter Movement and the outpouring of disdain and vitriol surrounding these recent events, multiply these sentiments by a factor of 1000 and you’ll come close to the tenor of the pubic towards these young men back in 1989. 

The arrest, trials and convictions of Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray, resulted in the election of tough on crime Rudy Guiliani as Mayor of New York City and the institution of “stop and frisk” by the NYC Police Department (only recently ended by Mayor Bill DeBlasio) and “broken window” policies that served to exacerbate the tough on crime national strategies (mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes and you’re out) being advocated and resulting in even greater racial and ethnic disparities in our judicial system.   The entire nation applauded the hard line attitudes of Rudy Guiliani and the New York City Police Department.  President Bill Clinton went on to propose sweeping Anti-Crime legislation in 1994 that Congress readily approved.   The Central Park Five were incarcerated at that time, and there was no discussion of how racism might play into the “get-tough-on-crime” legislation that was sweeping the country.  It's an issue that until recently, we seem to have largely ignored since then. 

It was only through the confession of one Matias Reyes in 2002 who happened to wind up in the same prison as Wise that the case against the Central Park Five was blown apart.  His DNA matched that found in the semen that was found in Trisha Meili.  Though the brutality of the attack on the Central Park jogger staggered the public imagination, it was a lesser example of Reyes' viciousness. He was convicted of raping four women and killing one of them, who was pregnant, while her young children were in the apartment. With some of them, he’d cut them around their eyes, to prevent them from identifying him. He also admitted to sexually assaulting his mother. 

The bottom line to the atrocious Central Park Five miscarriage of justice?  Well, the years that each of the Central Park Five spent in prison, are gone.  The ways in which their lives were altered can never be restored.  Their dignity, their reputations, their emotional and physical trauma can never be undone.

But in 2003 the Central Park Five sued New York City.  The city settled their cases for $41 million.  The Five are pursing even more damages from the State of New York.  To the tune of $52 million. 

And yet as Ferguson and Baltimore illustrate, the same old conditions still exist.  It is instructive that a Justice Department investigation of the justice system in Ferguson identified the many ways in which the Police Department, the DA’s office, the Court system were simply used – not to provide justice – but as fee collection agencies preying mainly on Black folks and the poor, a very common situation all across the country.  The recommendations of the Justice Department were rejected in toto by Ferguson officials who refused to make any changes to their unjust, predatory justice system.  Until, that is, the Department of Justice threatened a lawsuit against them.

Race mattered in 1989.  It's why these five innocent young men were railroaded. It still matters today.

The deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and others at the hands of the police sparked a discussion that continues.  But back in 1989 there was no such discussion.  Five young Black men were tied to the scene of the crime, they were arrested, they confessed to rape, they were tried and convicted in a highly charged, highly publicized series of trials.  They were Black, therefore, they were guilty. 

But they were not guilty.  Not a single one of them.  

Note, however, that had it not been for Reyes confession, not through any efforts by the New York Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office, or any other piece of our justice system, the Central Park Five might still be in prison.    They served between seven to thirteen years behind bars for a crime they did not commit.  The lawsuits are intended to provide some compensation, some reparations, for the system's "mistake."   

But the years that were lost to their lives cannot be compensated.  They are forever gone. 

Although reforming our fucked up justice system has been in the headlines of late, the very pervasiveness of the problem, the thoroughness with which all of our criminal justice system from local police forces to state and Federal courts is so badly out of whack, I don't see or hear the kinds of urgent calls for change that we ought to be hearing in order to address this fundamentally corrosive malignancy. 

Ken Burn's "The Central Park Five" is a truly excellent work.  It matters.  I urge you to see it. 
It's available on PBS and from Netflix.  




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