Exoneree talks wrongful conviction

The documentary Central Park Five about the 1989 case was also screened

Photo courtesy of Maddy Lancaster | Dr. Cheryl Jonson (left) and senior Maddy Lancaster (right) attended Central Park Five exoneree Yusef Salaam’s (center) talk last Thursday.

Xavier’s Criminal Justice Society hosted a screening of the documentary Central Park Five followed by a talk given by Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five exonerees, this past Thursday. The 2012 documentary concerns the Central Park Jogger case that earned national attention from media outlets.

Sarah Burns, one of the directors of the film, had previously worked in paralegal cases and was inspired to create the documentary because of her work on her undergraduate thesis dealing with racism in the media’s coverage of the case.

The case began on April 19, 1989, when a White woman who had been jogging through Central Park was raped and nearly beaten to death. In the days that followed, the Central Park police precinct detained and coerced false confessions from five Harlem teenagers: Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Salaam.

The teenagers, later dubbed the “Central Park Five,” were part of or associated with a group of around 30 adolescents who had heckled and assaulted strangers in the park the night of the incident. Several were detained at the Central Park precinct, but many were released.

Detectives at the precinct interrogated each of members of the Central Park Five for anywhere between 14 and 30 hours without food or drink. They pressured and physically intimidated the teenagers into telling a fabricated account of the various crimes that night, including the assault of the jogger. None of the five knew each other prior to their sentencing, and their confessions contradicted each other as well as the known facts at the time. They were also the only detainees who included themselves in their accounts of the jogger’s assault.

The Central Park Jogger case was well followed in New York City and garnered national media attention, resulting in immense pressure to find and sentence a perpetrator.

Central Park Five photo 2
Photo courtesy of Flickr | The screening of the 2012 documentary Central Park Five, which won a Peabody Award in 2013, was followed by exoneree Yusef Salaam’s talk.


While New York City was already notorious for extreme violence, the case caught the public’s attention because of the races of the victim and alleged perpetrators — the victim was White, four of the teenagers were Black and one was Hispanic. It played into not only the rampant racial narratives concerning gang- and drug-related violence in African-American and Latinx neighborhoods but also the “super-predator scare” of the 90s.

Despite alibis and a lack of DNA evidence, the Central Park Five were found guilty and sentenced to five to 10 years and five to 15 years based solely on the coerced taped confessions.

The members of the Central Park Five served a range of six to 13 years before the true perpetrator, serial rapist Matias Reyes, turned himself in while serving a life sentence in 2002. DNA evidence identified him as the sole contributor of semen found on the victim’s body and confirmed his confession.

The Central Park Five’s sentences were vacated, but the damage had already been done. The five young men leveled a lawsuit against the state of New York that was settled in 2014.

The story of the Central Park Five’s wrongful convictions is not unique. The National Registry of Exonerations has 2,189 exonerations recorded between 1989 and 2018, 47 percent of which are African-American. Salaam shared that he and the four other exonerees feel that the documentary was able to give them back their lives that they had missed in their time in prison.

Criminal Justice Society President and senior Maddy Lancaster shared that the club decided to screen the documentary because of the racial element of the Central Park five’s initial convictions.

“Racism is super, super relevant (to the criminal justice system),” Lancaster said. “If you aren’t directly involved in the system, you don’t realize that.”

Lancaster added that the documentary was especially relevant because of the involvement of President Donald Trump, who continues to state that the five men wrongfully convicted are guilty.

Salaam argued in a 2016 Guardian article that the piece that secured the push for the public to blame the teenagers was the full-page ads in four of New York’s major newspapers calling for the executions of the teenaged defendants. These ads were purchased and signed by Trump in 1990.

“I think it says a lot about our climate right now. He says that they’re guilty despite the evidence, and people still listen to that,” Lancaster said.

By: Heather Gast ~Staff Writer~