Do the Right Thing: The Central Park Five

balanceOn January 1, 2014, Bill de Blasio was sworn in as  the 109th mayor of New York City, the first liberal to hold that office in twenty years. The selection of the leader of the nation’s largest city always garners national attention, and November’s election was no different. Aside from the focus on his proposed policies, de Blasio’s multiracial family (his African-American wife, Chirlane McCray, and their children Chiara and Dante) was fodder for pop culture.

However, it was not de Blasio’s personal life that interested me, but his ideas of reform and righting wrongs. He has pledged to end the stop-and-frisk policy and to “settle the Central Park Five case because a huge injustice has been done.” Although in this case, justice delayed is justice denied, I am hopeful that de Blasio will “do the right thing” and end the city’s legal battle over this case.

In 1989, New York mayor Ed Koch called the sensational, racially charged Central Park Jogger case “the crime of the century.” On the night of  April 19, a 28-year-old, white investment banker–later identified as Trish Meili– was brutally beaten and raped while jogging through Central Park. The police quickly set their sights on a large group of African-American and Latino teens who were in Central Park, some of them harassing and even beating others in the park.

From the larger group of young men in the park that night, the police focused on Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise. The young men, who were between 14 and 16 years old, became known as “The Central Park Five.” Although they all denied their participation in a rape at first, after being interrogated by police for hours on end (between 14 and 30 without attorneys or parents present) and being deprived of sleep, food, and drink, the frightened young men began to turn on each other.

The 2012 Ken Burns documentary, “The Central Park Five,” tells the story of these young men. They contend that their confessions were obtained under duress, that they only parroted stories fed to them by the police, falsely believing that their “confessions” would allow them to return home to their families. However, the confessions–although recanted–sealed their fates. The Five were charged with a number of felonies including rape, attempted murder, sodomy, sexual abuse, and robbery.

Kevin Richardson was convinced that “the truth is gonna come out.” There was no DNA evidence that linked the five teenagers to the crime. In addition, their confessions told conflicting stories about where the crime took place and even the manner in which it was committed. Nevertheless, in two separate trials in 1990, the young men were convicted and sentenced to serve between 5 and 15 years in prison.

McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana were all released having served nearly

The Central Park Five (2012), a film by Ken and Sarah Burns.

The Central Park Five (2012), a film by Ken and Sarah Burns.

seven years in prison, leaving only Kharey Wise in prison. In 2001, Wise crossed paths with Matias Reyes. Years earlier the two had an altercation at Rikers Island Correctional Institution while they were being held there. Matias, a serial rapist, had confessed to a series of rapes and a murder when he was apprehended in August 1989. After talking to Wise, Matias, who had “found religion” during his incarceration, realized that Wise had been convicted of a crime he committed. He decided to “do the right thing” and confess to his involvement in the Central Park Rape. In addition, the DNA evidence matched Reyes to the rape.

In 2001, the defense requested that the guilty verdicts of the Central Park Five be overturned. Their convictions were vacated in 2002, and in 2003, the “Central Park Five” filed suit against the prosecutors and the police department for $250 million. At this point, the case remains unresolved, with the next hearing scheduled for January 21. No amount of money can give these men back the youth they missed in prison. So, it’s not exactly justice, but it’s a start. Let’s hope that Mayor de Blasio will “do the right thing.”

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