Seemingly out of nowhere last Friday, the city of New York, via its law department, released a trove of documents on the notorious “Central Park Five” or “Central Park Jogger” rape case, a 1989 assault that rocked the city along its already precarious racial fault lines.
In April of that year, a white investment banker, later identified as Trisha Meili, was raped and brutally beaten in one of New York City’s most iconic (read: white) spaces, Central Park, allegedly by a pack of marauding black and Latinx teenagers, crossing the border from their Harlem neighborhood into the northern lip of the world-renowned park.
One of those young men accused in the crime—and later exonerated for it—Yusef Salaam, says the city’s recent decision to drop thousands of pages of documents was ill-considered at best, reopening old wounds and even kicking up doubts of his innocence, which he thought had been proven.
“This is not a good thing for us,” says Salaam, now 44, to The Root (Full disclosure: Salaam is a personal friend of the writer, who first met him in an activist group in Harlem 15 years ago). “In some ways, we feel like we’re still accused.”
The biggest issue for Salaam is that the drop presents an incomplete tale of what happened. He says that by only releasing police and prosecutorial documents, the city by default presented a one-sided view.
“None of us, including our attorneys, were against having the complete document dump,” Salaam explains. “But we are and we continue to stand against having the documents released in a piecemeal or controlled fashion.
“I think it’s definitely a calculated move on the city’s part,” Salaam adds, noting that the 30-year anniversary of the case is approaching. Director Ava DuVernay will also be drawing new attention to the Central Park Five with her scripted Netflix miniseries set to air in 2019.
On the day the documents were released, one of the original prosecutors on the case spoke out, as did Meili, who according to the New York Daily News, hopes the case records will clear the prosecution and police of any wrongdoing. This despite the fact that in 2014, the city paid the five young men $41 million for wrongful imprisonment (while admitting no wrong).
“It occurred to me that this is the perfect storm because the level of controversy, the same cloud of confusion this brings, taking us right back to 1989,” says Salaam. “There’s a handful of folks that are looking back and saying that this is a clear injustice, and then there’s the city fighting us with its spiked wheels trying to mow us down.
“The only difference though is that now we’re adults,” he asserts. “Now we’re prepared. Now we’re ready.”
The 1989 rape of the Central Park Jogger was a crime that stunned the nation, and for most of New York—white and black—it stoked and confirmed long-held fears about teens of color (whom some, like Hillary Clinton, would later deem “superpredators”): feral thugs crossing 110th Street and stomping into sacred, hallowed, uncontested ground, assaulting, nay raping, a white woman, the apex of racial depravity and crimes.
Less than 24 hours after Meili’s blood-soaked body was found, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Khary Wise and Salaam were arrested for the heinous attack.
New York City’s tabloid press had a field day (and sold lots of papers to boot), branding the kids from Harlem a “wolf pack,” and painting a picture that made their guilt a foregone conclusion. A two-bit New York City real estate mogul even took out full-page ads in five city papers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty weeks after the incident (he later went on to become the nation’s 45th president.)
The police and city officials were also eager to get a “win” on the case. The gritty New York City of 1989 scarcely resembles the gentrified box store that it does today. Murders were rampant, the crack epidemic was strangling neighborhoods, and the violence that fueled the justification for mass incarceration was just ramping up with black and brown communities bearing the brunt of it.
This case received an outsized amount of publicity likely because it upheld the most fervid of racial taboos, that of black men randomly raping white women. In fact, about the same time that the Central Park Jogger was assaulted, a black woman was raped and thrown off of a rooftop in Brooklyn, but that case received scant press coverage.
In the summer and fall of 1990, Salaam, McCray, Wise, Richardson and Santana did not take a plea deal, went to trial and lost. Though their accounts of the night varied wildly and there was no conclusive evidence tying them to the assault (the semen found at the crime scene matched none of them), all five were convicted for the rape, as well as assaults on others in the park that night.
The crux of the guilty verdict, according to jurors who spoke out later, was that the teens all confessed to the crime (either in writing or on video), though some quickly recanted. The boys said that the police promised them that they could go home if they would just tell them about the crime, and deprived them of food, water and sleep until they admitted to playing a part in Meili’s sexual assault (the teens all implicated one another).
In 2012, seminal documentarian Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, released a film on the case, The Central Park Five, which made an extremely convincing case that the police, prosecution and press were all actively or passively complicit in railroading the five kids: first, by pursuing them as the only suspects even though there were glaring inconsistencies in their stories, and secondly, persisting despite knowing that there was no hard evidence linking them to Meili’s rape, except for their own words, which they later said were coerced.
According to the Innocence Project, it is not uncommon for easily impressionable juveniles to make false confessions; in fact, more than 25 percent of its clients who were exonerated gave “confessions” to police.
The teens all served between 7 and 13 years for rape, and when released had to register as sex offenders.
In 2002, a convicted rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes confessed that he alone perpetrated the crime, saying he felt bad that Kharey Wise, who was in the same prison as him at one point, was serving time for a crime that he himself committed. DNA technology had advanced since 1989, and Reyes’ genetic material was tested against the semen collected some 13 years before. It was a definitive match and Reyes’ M.O. in the assault (acting alone; victim type; and proximity to the crime scene) bolstered his claim.
The five young men, now out of prison, petitioned the city to have their crimes vacated, which the city did in 2002, under City Assistant District Attorney Nancy E. Ryan and District Attorney for New York County Robert Morgenthau (the detailed affirmation to vacate their judgment of conviction can be read here).
In 2014, the city of New York settled with the group, now known as the “Central Park Five” for $41 million dollars under current Mayor Bill de Blasio. Zachary Carter, who was then, and who remains, the head of the New York City Law Department, was pointed in saying that the police and prosecution were not at fault (bold ours):
To the extent that the evidence suggests that these five young men were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to substantial prison terms for a crime they did not commit, that in and of itself constitutes an injustice in need of redress. Toward that end, we have reached an agreement to settle this case. This agreement should not be construed as an acknowledgment that the convictions of these five plaintiffs were the result of law enforcement misconduct. On the contrary, our review of the record suggests that both the investigating detectives and the Assistant District Attorneys involved in the case acted reasonably, given the circumstances with which they were confronted on April 19, 1989 and thereafter.
To host the thousands of documents related to the Central Park Five, New York City put up a website dedicated to the files last Thursday. Though there are six main categories: Federal Civil Litigation; Incarceration and Parole Records; Miscellaneous; New York City Police Department Reinvestigation; New York County District Attorney Reinvestigation and Original Investigation and Prosecution, only one—Original Investigation and Prosecution—is populated with content. The others read “Under Construction.”
Attorney Karen Dippold, who has been involved with Salaam’s case in some capacity since 1989, says that the city’s release of only the original case records, and the brusque manner way in which it was done (she says she received an email Thursday night saying: “The investigative and prosecutive records have gone live”) paints a prejudicial picture of what transpired in the case.
“What we agreed upon, and what was actually discussed and what we understood—it’s even on a transcript on the public docket—was that it would be [everything at once] because it would be very biased and prejudicial for some of the documents to be on the website and not all of the documents in their entirety,” Dippold told The Root.
When The Root reached out to Zachary Carter to ask why the documents were being rolled out in the manner they were, among other questions, we were simply advised to cull through the documents on the website.
The city later released this statement to The Root:
We have gone through a process over the last two years under the supervision of the court of reviewing the documents produced in the civil case with plaintiffs’ counsel. A substantial amount of the materials from the civil case are ready for posting and we started the process of publicly posting on Thursday and that process will continue. The City determined that it was not in the public interest to delay the posting of all the documents until the very last document has been reviewed.
A spokesperson also confirmed that the next batch of documents would be more of the police and prosecutorial materials.
Salaam and Dippold believe that the city is being strategic in the way in which it is releasing the documents because renewed national attention on the case could reflect poorly on those involved in the original investigation.
“Some of the people involved in the prosecution and the defense will be writing books,” says Dippold. “And I know that Ava DuVernay has announced that she is doing a film and so I think there was sort of a sense of urgency on the part of the investigators and the prosecutors.”
Salaam agrees that those involved in the original case would benefit from having the public believe that they did not persist unreasonably in putting five innocent teenagers in prison.
“If you look at the so-called legacy of all of the people that were involved—not just the prosecutors, but the police officers, the detectives—everybody was able to get accolades, everybody was able to get promotions,” says Salaam.
“Now the former prosecutors are speaking out, and I feel like they have everything to gain by making the public believe they did the right thing. But they knew. They knew. They knew that there was something wrong with this case and that they overstepped the bounds of the law to put us in prison for something that we didn’t do.”
Salaam says that because of the way in which the case was handled, Reyes was able to continue to terrorize women, noting that Reyes’ last known victim (in June 1989) was “a young pregnant Latina woman who he raped and murdered while her children were in the next room.”
“That’s a huge tragedy,” says Salaam. “That part of the story is always left out and they never talk about that.”
Those involved in the original investigation, including co-prosecutor Tim Clements, who is now at a law firm in Cleveland, spoke out on the day the documents were released saying not only was it a mistake to settle with the teens for $41 million but that the city should not have vacated its original convictions.
“We tried the case, we presented the facts and the evidence and both juries convicted,” he said to the New York Daily News. “The videotaped statements were pretty compelling.”
The Root reached out to Clements and received no reply.
Linda Fairstein, who had overseen the prosecution and who went on to be a best-selling crime novelist, was herself called out by an appellate judge who presided over one of Salaam’s appeals (which was denied). Judge Vito Titone said of Fairstein in a later interview, “I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old’s confession. ... Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn’t care.”
The Root reached out to Fairstein and received no reply.
Salaam, who is now married and living in another state with his wife and a blended brood of 10 children (ages 2 to 22) says that eventually, he wants to read all of the primary documents in the case that has defined so much of his life.
“For one, I was a child when this happened. And to try to wrap my mind around this as an adult as I go out and speak to people about criminal justice and criminal injustice. It helps to be able to understand how something like this happened in the greater context of what we want to the system to be,” he says.
As for the Central Park Jogger (the mainstream press at that time did not release Meili’s name as a rape victim, but did release the names of those accused of her rape, although all of them were 16 or younger) made a complete and highly improbable recovery and has became a cause celebre and advocate for victims of sexual violence.
Meili has recently gone on record to say that she hopes the recent document dump will absolve the NYPD and DA’s office of the criticism they have received in their handling of the case.
And Salaam understands why she might have taken that stance.
“I’ve always said that I felt like her victimhood should not be discounted. She’s definitely a victim and she was victimized in the worst way,” says Salaam. “I also feel like the city did her a disservice because they told her that the people who had done this had been apprehended and had gone to jail.
“But [Reyes’] semen is the only semen found on the scene. This guy talking about what he did, and how and where he did it, and all of the things that he’s saying is verified,” he continues.
“Here’s a case where you have really, really important documents but they’re not getting the context. And that context is an important thing.”