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NYC235 cover image See all stories from issue #235, Jan./Feb. 2013

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The Central Park Five
Teens served time for a crime they didn’t commit
Jovon Ferguson
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April 19, 1989: Five teenage boys from Harlem were hanging out around the neighborhood. Friends met up with friends and the boys ended up in Central Park with a group of more than 20 other teens. A handful from the group got violent, throwing rocks and beating up a homeless man and a male jogger. That same night, elsewhere in the park, a white woman out jogging was brutally beaten, raped, and left for dead.

This is the beginning of the story surrounding the so-called “Central Park Five,” five teenagers wrongly accused and convicted of the rape of the jogger, Trisha Meili. After nearly 6 to 13 years in prison, they were exonerated in 2002, after the real rapist confessed. Now their story has become a documentary by renowned director Ken Burns, along with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon.

Hearing about this case for the first time, I was eager to see the documentary and get all the details. Why was this case such a big deal and what was so wrong about the conviction of the boys? What I learned wasn’t necessarily surprising, but profoundly upsetting.

No Criminal History

Before Meili was discovered, police responding to reports about unruly teens began rounding up young people in the park. Among them were Kevin Richardson, 15 and the “baby” of his family, and Raymond Santana, a 14-year-old with an interest in art and music. The boys were on the verge of being released from the precinct when a detective called from the hospital where Meili was, and asked that they be held for further questioning.

The next day, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, both 15, were picked up. Police convinced Yusef’s friend Korey Wise, who was 16 and the oldest of the five, to go down to the station with him. None of these boys had a criminal history. They weren’t prepared for the manipulative tactics of detectives hungry to catch a rapist.

The boys were held for up to 30 hours and aggressively interrogated, often with their parents out of the room. The stress, fear, and psychological breakdown caused by this long interrogation process made the boys desperate to go home. As the five recount in the documentary, the police pitted the boys against each other, telling each one that someone else in the group was incriminating him. All they wanted was to get out, but their only ticket to freedom, the police told them, was a confession.

Instead, that ended up being their ticket to prison. Four out of the five did confess, and those confessions would be the primary evidence used against them in their trials.

Besides the fact that innocent teens had been branded rapists and sent to prison, the thing that really bothered me about this case was that huge signs pointing to their innocence were ignored by almost everyone. As someone in the film points out, if the boys witnessed the beating of the male jogger, they couldn’t have also been in the part of the park where the rape took place—the chronology of events, which was put together by the police, doesn’t make sense.

Also, there was no forensic evidence at the scene connecting the boys to the crime. Although Meili had lost almost 80 percent of the blood in her body, no blood was found on any of the boys or their clothing. Sperm found on Meili did not match the DNA of any of the accused. (It was later found to match the DNA of the real culprit.)

And what about the confessions? These were four inconsistent confessions with factual errors made by teenage boys under immense pressure, desperate to get out and go home.

image by YC-Art Dept

Demonized in the Media

I was truly dumbfounded by the fact that these things didn’t seem to stand out to anyone beyond the teenagers’ families and some members of the black community. Leaders like Al Sharpton stood up for the boys, but even people with different backgrounds who couldn’t relate to the boys in any way should have been able to see that something was wrong. They should have been able to see that there were holes in the story. If more people had spoken out to stop the fast-progressing sweep of conformity, maybe the boys would have had a chance. But no one did.

Part of the problem was the media coverage: Instead of raising questions, the mainstream press bought the prosecution’s side of the story. Every day the boys would make headlines, and most of the time they were thrashed. They were called a “wolf pack,” “beasts,” and “wild animals.” Donald Trump placed full-page ads calling for the return of the death penalty. The boys were portrayed as lowlifes with no remorse for their actions, despite the fact that they had done nothing.

At the time, New York was at a peak of crime and racial tension. Emotions ran high. Everyone, no matter who they were, had to fit him or herself in a social lane to be safe. As the film recounts, people stuck to their own neighborhoods, associated with the same people, took the same safe route to and from work every day. That made it hard to identify with the situations of people different from them. And when those stories that portrayed the boys in a negative light arrived on the newsstands, people ate them up.

In a recent discussion at the 92nd St. Y, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam, now in their late 30s, talked about the effect that being convicted had had on them. Salaam said it was hard to “scrub off the indelible scars of prison.” After serving out their sentences, it was difficult for them to adapt and re-enter society. Besides having to overcome emotional trauma, the men faced other obstacles. Their criminal records and the notoriety of the case made it hard for them to get jobs. And until 2002, when they were officially exonerated, they had to register as sex offenders.

Santana pointed out how their lives had been taken from them. Both under the age of 16 at the time, the two were thrust into the harsh and dangerous environment of prison without ever having been able to grow and develop and experience life. That is something we take for granted.

Could It Happen Today?

As an African-American teenage boy growing up in New York City, I’m not afraid of the society I’m living in, but I am conscious of the threats around me. I keep in mind the history of prejudice, racism, and injustice that America has tucked away in its pocket, and I know I have a target on my back.

I know I’m not safe from being wrongly accused, because it has happened to me and others around me far too often. Every day, when you share long gazes with police as they look you up and down deciding whether to stop you or let you go on, you are reminded of their presence and reputation. You are reminded of the aggressive nature of their stop and frisks, and their tendency to grab anyone who “fits the description.” That is the kind of accusation you face as a young black man.

I remember one of my friends telling me about his run-in with the police. They stopped him while he was walking past the basketball courts, and cuffed him to one of the poles, searching him and even slapping him as words were exchanged. He had nothing on him.

My point is that injustice is ongoing, large scale or small scale. Things like this continue to occur in our society because there is little opposition. Our vision of what’s right has been impaired by racism, fear, and prejudice, and if we don’t side with justice, injustice will keep happening. We can’t be so quick to turn off our mental light bulbs and not think for ourselves. We can’t just brush off the Central Park Five, any more than we can brush off Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin and countless others—they’re reflections of our society.

image by YC-Art Dept

Read our original coverage of the Central Park Jogger case in 1991 in "Voices from the Archive" and check out our interview with Yusef Salaam, "Growing Up Behind Bars."


Know Your Rights

If you’re stopped by the police:

• Stay calm and be cool.
• Don’t physically resist.
• Don’t run!
• Give your name and address, but you don’t have to give any other information.
• Try to remember the badge number, name, and a physical description of the cop(s) who stopped or arrested you.
• When cops stop you, ask bystanders to stand at a discreet distance and observe the police without interfering.

If you’re arrested:

• Once you are told you are under arrest, give your name and address; give your parents and/or employer’s name, address, and telephone number. (This information is needed in setting bail.)
• You have the right to remain silent. Besides giving the above information, only say, “I want to talk to a lawyer.”
• Don’t talk to the police, on videotape, or to a District Attorney about anything that has to do with the crime you are arrested for. Do not sign anything.
• Do not talk to inmates in jail about your case.

If you are 16 or younger:

• Cops can stop you if you are hanging out during school time or if they suspect that you are a runaway. That means any time they want to.
• Always carry ID, otherwise the cops will use your lack of identification as an excuse to take you in.
• If the police arrest you, they must notify your parents!
• If you are arrested, you have the right to make one call to your family or lawyer.

Provided by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. For more information go to mxgm.org or call the New York chapter at 718-254-8800.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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NYC235 cover image See all stories from issue #235, Jan./Feb. 2013

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ISBN: 9781935552017
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