Central Park Five exonerees at Miami Law
On April 19, 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested for the rape, sexual assault, and attempted murder of a 28-year-old woman who was attacked while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. Most of the young men – ages 14 to 16 – confessed after more than 24 hours of police interrogations without benefit of counsel or the presence of their parents.
The woman, an investment banker, was in a coma for 12 days and never regained the memory of the attack.
The horrific case outraged New Yorkers, brought national headlines, and the term “wilding” came into the public lexicon, used to describe supposed packs of young men marauding nightly in the northern reaches of the park. The five were summarily tried and convicted with sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years, even though each steadfastly proclaimed their innocence and none was tied to any DNA evidence collected at the scene or from the victim.
By 2002, all but one of The Central Park Five, as they came to be known, had completed their sentences. The one remaining was incarcerated with another inmate who had been living in the East Harlem neighborhood at the time of the attack on the jogger. He was serving a life sentence for the sexual assault and murder of a pregnant 24-year-old in June of 1989. He confessed to the attack on the jogger; DNA evidence was conclusive that the now 31-year-old was the perpetrator.
While the attack and subsequent trials received extensive national media coverage, the exoneration of the five young men, whose lives were forever changed, did not garner the same attention. Many believed that the actual perpetrator was in cahoots with the original five. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns retold their stories in his 2012 movie, The Central Park Five.
Four of the exonerees and their lead counsel spoke at the University of Miami School of Law recently about their convictions, exoneration, and return to a more normal life.
The lawyer, Michael Warren, called the case “the most infamous case in New York history” and likened the prosecutorial process to lions hunting antelopes. “The antelopes want not only to be free but to live, and the prosecutors are the predators whose minds are to consume by any means necessary.” He said the boys and their families had never brushed up against law enforcement and had an idealized idea of legal system while the prosecutors “were consumed in the same fashion as a zebra being separated from the pack.”
Antron Brown, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana spoke of being held and questioned separately and undergoing long hours of interrogation in cold rooms, with no food or drink or sleep. They were threatened and screamed at; at least one was struck, until most eventually broke down. Their confessions, secured through trickery and deceit on the part of the police, were for a crime for which they had not committed, being coached through the events by detectives in exchange for promises of being allowed to go home. None of the confessions tracked with the others nor factually matched the timeline of events or physical evidence.
Even after they were cleared, most people believed that they had been involved, and had been exonerated on a technicality. It wasn’t until the release of the movie in 2012 did the public understand the breadth of their innocence.
“We went from the one of the most hated people in the world to one of the most loved,” said Salaam. “In 1989, we could feel the anger. Donald Trump was taking out full pages ads urging the reinstatement of the death penalty for our case. People were saying if we were hung from trees in Central Park then maybe the city would be safe again.”
Richardson said that discussions like the one at Miami Law were akin to therapy; talking about the events has a cathartic effect and feels like moving forward. At the time of the crime he was 14 years old and was completely terrified. “It was like a nightmare that you never wake up from,” he said. “I was questioned for three days and I thought I was going to die in jail.” At the end, he would have said anything to escape the relentless interrogation.
Brown said that the police told his parents that he had witnessed a crime. They asked him to change into the clothes he had been wearing when the crime occurred before coming down to the precinct to give a statement. Once there, the questioning moved from one of a witness to that of a participant. “I was crying and sweating. The police were yelling at me,” he said. “I was making up stories. I was fifteen and now I’m 41 and I still remember it.”
“It’s an indelible scar,” Salaam said.
The audience and organizers were awed by the presentation.
“I feel incredibly honored to have these guests attend our event, ‘Stories of Injustice: An Innocence Series,’” said Lauren Gonzalez, University of Miami Race & Social Justice Law Review Editor in Chief 2014 – 2015, who also helped arrange the event. “The Miami Law community is extremely lucky to be able to hear these four men’s stories firsthand. We hope that this event will bring greater awareness regarding wrongful conviction to the Miami Law community and to the general public.”
“While over 25 years have passed since The Central Park Five were arrested and charged, the impact of prosecutorial caprice and overcriminalization on youth of color linger today,” said Caitlin Griffin, 3L, Symposia Editor of the Race & Social Justice Law Review, who helped bring the film and the speakers to Miami Law. “The story of these now grown men has particular relevance in Florida, where the direct file statute allows children as young as 12 to be transferred to adult court and more often than any other state.”
"I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to help bring these exonerees to Miami Law to speak. Their story has always interested me and we are lucky to have them here,” said Danielle Columbo, a 3L and former Innocence Clinic student. “We can only fight injustice through the education and outreach of the entire community."
The screening of "The Central Park Five" and the discussion with the exonerees and their lawyer was made possible by the work of Gregory Accarino, Sarah Cardone, Danielle Columbo, Lauren Gonzalez, and Caitlin Griffin, as well as the sponsorship of the Criminal Law Society, Innocence Clinic, Trial Team, and Race and Social Justice Law Review.