This essay was originally published by the California Innocence Project on its blog here.
According to documentary film-maker Ken Burns, the city of New York will finally settle a $250 Million wrongful conviction lawsuit brought in 2002 by three members of the infamous “Central Park Five” after ten long years of avoidance and delay by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. During a November 12 discussion on HuffPost Live, Burns told host Josh Zepps that “Bill de Blasio, the mayor-elect, has agreed to settle this case, and though this is justice delayed way too long, and that is justice denied, [they] will not only be exonerated…but they will have justice, they will see some closure, they will be able to be made whole.”
The ugly story of the “Central Park Five” represents one of the darker moments in our recent history. It lays bare for all to see our shameful fears, prejudices, and preconceptions about young men of color and the unbelievably dangerous and tragic consequences that are their direct, yet predicable result.
On the night April 19, 1989, Trisha Melli, a white Phi Beta Kappa economics major from Wellesley College and the daughter of a Westinghouse executive, was brutally beaten and raped while jogging in Manhattan’s Central Park. The attack left Melli with a fractured skull, internal bleeding, and other injuries from which she was not expected to recover. The heinousness and boldness of the crime sparked outrage in New York and across the nation and was seen as emblematic of New York’s escalating crime problem.
Shortly after the crime was committed, five juveniles from Harlem were arrested and charged with the assault and rape of Melli—Yusef Salaam (15), Korey Wise (16), Kevin Richardson (14), Antron McCray (15), and Raymond Santana (14). Four of the youths were black, one was Latino. Their faces were immediately splattered on the front page of every newspaper in the country. We were told they were part of a violent gang of youths who were roaming the park on the night of the assault engaged in what became known as “wilding.” We were told they were the demons who savagely assaulted and raped Melli on the night of April 19. We were told that justice would be done. And we believed like we are apt to do. Because we desperately wanted to believe.
And so, the “Central Park Five” as they became to be known were promptly charged, tried, convicted by a jury of their peers, and sentenced to long prison terms. And we congratulated ourselves because justice had been done.
Except justice hadn’t been done. The Central Park Five were innocent. In 2002, a convicted rapist by the name of Matias Reyes confessed to perpetrating the crime. Independent testing of DNA samples taken from the original crime scene confirmed. As a result, on December 19, 2002, upon the recommendation of the Manhattan District Attorney, the convictions against the Central Park Five were overturned and they were freed. By that time, Yusef Salaam had served 5 ½ years in prison; Korey Wise had served 11 ½ years behind bars; Kevin Richardson had spent 5 ½ years in prison; Antron McCray had been incarcerated for 6 years; and Raymond Santana had been in prison for 5 years.
In 2003, Richardson, Santana, and McCray sued the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. It is this lawsuit, that has been squatting on the court’s docket for over a decade now, that Mayor-elect de Blasio has committed to finally settle according to Burns.
Representatives for the Mayor-elect have not specifically confirmed Burns’ comments, although they have referred all recent inquiries about the matter to the following January statement which is entirely consistent with Burns’ comments: “As a city, we have a moral obligation to right this injustice. It is in our collective interest—the wrongly accused, their families and the taxpayer—to settle this case and not let another year slip by without action.” Time will tell if the Mayor-elect has the courage and the moral compass to follow through on his campaign promises.
Asked about the prospect of closure that would result from settlement of the case, Yusef Salaam was philosophical. “I always say, ‘Positive history is still being written.’ And this is where we are right now. We’re definitely waiting for this case to be finished. The Central Park Five doesn’t just represent the Central Park Five. It actually represents the greater reality of what’s happening in our community—and how it happens. People always ask us, ‘Can something like this happen again?’ The reality is that it’s happening right now.”
The tale of Central Park Five is the subject of Burns’ 2012 documentary film “The Central Park Five.”