On April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili, 28, was jogging through Central Park in Manhattan, NY, when she was assaulted and raped. She was among eight cases that occurred that night from Central Park to The North Woods. Meili’s case in particular caught the attention of the nation. Her injuries were so severe that she was in a coma for 12 days after the attack occurred. While this happened in 1989, this case holds the distinction of being one of the most publicized cases in the 1980s, and is now seen as an example of the reality of institutional racism. Why? There were 10 arrests made in connection with the case, but five stood out. The confessions the group, now known at the Central Park Five, made were under interrogation without any counsel present. Before the trials even began, they recanted their confessions and maintained their innocence. Despite the fact that DNA found at the scene – two samples from the same individual – did not match any of the Central Park Five, they were all found guilty. Four of the groups were under 16 and received sentences of six to seven years each, while the individual who was 16 was tried as an adult and served a total of 13 years in prison. The others who were arrested plead guilty before trial and were able to receive lesser sentences (Wikipedia 2020).
Who were the Central Park Five, and how did such a miscarriage of justice occur? The Central Park 5 were all young men, black and latino, who happened to be in Central Park along with approximately 30 other teenagers on the night of the attacks. Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, both 14, Anton McCray and Yusej Salaam, both 15, and Korey Wise, 16, were out in the park where undoubtedly there was trouble happening, but not caused by them. Richardson and Santana were the first to be taken in by the police, followed later by McCray and Salaam. Wise, however, was not there as a suspect and was actually there to support Salaam. For at least seven hours, without parents or counsel present, the young boys were interrogated by police. For any adult this would seem gruesome, so it should come as no surprise that false confessions were made. After all, after that long, people can be convinced they have done something they haven’t, or just confess to make it all stop. Four of the boys made their confessions on video (BBC 2019).
While those false confessions were redacted, the boys were still found guilty and sentenced to years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Years later, in 2016, Salaam would say in a Guardian interview that he could hear Wise being beaten by police in the other room and the police interrogating him would tell him he was next. He talked about how afraid he, his friends, and his family all were at the time. There were adverts taken out by none other than Donald Trump, calling for the boys to be put to death. Reportedly, Trump spent approximately $85,000 on these adverts, which also called “Bring Back Our Police” while calling for the death penalty to be reinstated for the case (BBC 2019). Despite the boys being exonerated through DNA evidence and the confession of the true killer in 2002, Trump refused to apologize for the adverts and other vile statements regarding the five youths as of 2019. Not only has he refused to apologize in light of the true circumstances, he seems to still believe the victims of this injustice are at fault because they admitted guilt (under duress). He declared he felt the boys receiving a settlement for their wrongful imprisonment was a disgrace, because there were others attacked that night, though the Central Park Five have not been connected to those attacks (Rupar 2019). Back in 1989, he wrote, “I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyse [sic] or understand them, I am looking to punish them,”; it would seem that has not changed (BBC 2019).
The boys, now men in their 40s, were able to receive a settlement of $41 million from New York City for the wrongful conviction, but this is likely of little solace to these men. New York refused to admit any kind of wrong doing in the situation, despite the fact that the entire case against the boys was based on coerced confessions, and the blatant racism that permeated the city at the time. It was by coincidence that Wise came into contact with the true perpetrator, Matias Reyes, while in prison. It was their meeting that lead to Reyes confessing to being the one who committed the heinous act against Meili in 1989 (Harris 2019). If Reyes had not confessed and the DNA hadn’t been tested, it is likely that none of the Central Park Five would have been exonerated without bringing significant public interest to the case. Due to the statue of limitations, Reyes was not charged with the crimes the Central Park Five spent time in prison for and is up for a parole hearing as of 2022 (BBC 2019).
During the trial, the judgement passed by the media was immediate and intense. As happens even now, the then-teenage boys were demonized in the media, and while they awaited their trial date, they had already been judged in the court of public opinion: guilty, despite the lack of real evidence. The teenagers were described as a “wolf pack,” an image that immediately conjures images of animals on the hunt to the minds of many. Reports were made that “at least a dozen” young people were involved in the attack, dragging Meili down to an area of water known as the Loch and beating her and raping her there. This was obviously wrong, as we now know the perpetrator was actually Matias Reyes and not a dozen or more teenagers. Throughout the trial, the young boys were described across the media as “animals” and “bloodthirsty” as well as “human mutations” and “savages”; each word dehumanized and demonized boys aged 14 to 16. With that kind of press, the boys were doomed: no one would be an impartial juror. Beyond that, there was even more demonization in the media by columnists. Pete Hamill of the New York Times came out with the blatantly racist opinions that the boys hailed from a world of violence, crimes, and drugs, where there were no fathers and rich white people were the enemies (History.com 2019).
What happened to the Central Park Five after being exonerated of these crimes, and what happened to Trisha Meili? Meili came forward in 2003 as the victim of the well-known case when she released her book, I Am The Central Park Jogger. After the attack, she has lost her sense of smell and still has scarring, but has gone on to become a motivational speaker and works with victims of sexual assault. Despite the attack, Meili is still running today (BBC 2019). Meili has no memory of the attack, likely due to the injuries sustained and being in a coma for nearly two weeks. Her injuries included a severe skull fracture and the loss of a majority of her blood (History.com 2019). In the time since being released from prison, Yusef Salaam has gotten married and has children of his own. He has spoken out about the fact that, during their interrogations, he and the other members of the group were denied food or water, and could not sleep for over 24 hours. In 2016, Barack Obama gave the life time achievement award to Salaam. Korey Wise, who was 16 when he was convicted and declared that Jesus would get the prosecutors for making the charges against him up, now works with the Innocence Project and advocates for the rights of those who have been wrongly convicted just as he was (Harris 2020). Just like Wise, Kevin Richardson now works with those who have been wrongly accused and the Innocence Project. Raymond Santana now lives in Atlanta with his daughter and now works as a filmmaker. He sold shirts with the names of the Central Park Five on them and the profits went to the Innocence Project (Harris 2020). As of 2012, Antron McCray was working as a forklift driver down south, where he lives and is raising his children. With the help of director Ava DuVernay, who also directed Selma (on Martin Luther King, Jr) and 13th, the Central Park Five were able to bring their story to more people through a Netflix series called When They See Us.
The story of the Central Park Five is a story of a vast miscarriage of justice, fueled by the racist attitudes of the times. We would like to think this wouldn’t happen today, but the reality is that there is still a major problem with racism within our justice system. There was no DNA evidence, no eye witnesses, no evidence whatsoever connecting these innocent teenagers to this vicious crime, yet they served years in prison for it. They are far from the only ones this has happened to, but their case is a perfect example of what happens to so many. We still see people of various backgrounds get railroaded by the Court of Public Opinion, and inevitably also the actual justice system, just because of the color of their skin and not because of the evidence. Today, we have the Innocence Project, which aims to help those who have been wrongly convicted. If you would like to donate to the Innocence Project, you can donate here.
“Central Park Jogger Case.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 June 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Park_jogger_case.
“Central Park Five: The True Story behind When They See Us.” BBC News, BBC, 12 June 2019, www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-48609693.
Rupar, Aaron. “Trump Still Refuses to Admit He Was Wrong about the Central Park 5.” Vox, Vox, 18 June 2019, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/6/18/18684217/trump-central-park-5-netflix.
Harris, Aisha. “The Central Park Five: ‘We Were Just Baby Boys’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/05/30/arts/television/when-they-see-us.html.
Harris, Chris. “The Central Park 5: Where Are They Now?” PEOPLE.com, 16 Feb. 2020, people.com/crime/the-central-park-five-where-they-are-now/.
History.com Editors. “The Central Park Five.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 May 2019, http://www.history.com/topics/1980s/central-park-five.