Until Proven Innocent
25 years after their wrongful conviction, and more than a decade after exoneration, the Central Park Five are still telling their story
|Raymond Santana said that police were determined to get a conviction, under immense pressure from the public, fueled by hundreds of articles in the media.
|Yusef Salaam called the experince of speaking to school groups therapeutic. “It allows us to channel our rage into something more productive,” he said.
“It seemed like a no-brainer to me. I thought I would go to the police department, I would tell them I didn’t do it, and my name would be removed from the list [of suspects]... I came home seven years later.”
That is how Yusef Salaam recalled the decision one April afternoon in 1989 that would change his life forever. Along with four other black and Hispanic teenagers, the so-called “Central Park Five,” Mr. Salaam was wrongly convicted of the sexual assault of a jogger in Central Park in 1989. After years of imprisonment, all five were exonerated in 2002, when an examination of DNA evidence linked the crime to a separate, single attacker.
Mr. Salaam joined Raymond Santana, another member of the five, on the stage in Packer’s Chapel, on Wednesday, February 6, 2013. Also visiting was Edwin Grimsley, a case analyst with the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to seeking out and exonerating the wrongly convicted.
“While the leading cause of wrongful conviction is misidentification,” Mr. Grimlsey said, “in 28% of cases that have been overturned, there has been a false confession.” The Central Park Five is just such a case.
The Innocence Project is one of the real-world subjects of an ongoing inter-disciplinary collaboration at Packer between students in Dr. Alice Lurain’s Forensic Chemistry class and Dr. Sarah Strauss's Criminal Justice course. The two teachers were excited to welcome these guest speakers to Packer and to widen the discussion of these issues to the entire Packer Upper School.
“While we often perceive science and the law as unbiased disciplines and institutions that seek the truth,” stated Dr. Lurain, “it is important to remember that they are both created and practiced by human beings, and that despite our best intentions, they are imperfect. As such, it is necessary to think critically about the application of science and the law so that we can improve both and serve all citizens most fairly and effectively.”
In April 1989, Raymond Santana was 14 years old, when one decision — to go and hang out with some classmates — changed his life, he said.
Picked up by the police and questioned for between 15 and 30 hours with no food or sleep, Mr. Santana said he was coached along by veteran police interrogators with promises that he could go home if he just signed the confession paperwork. “When you put a lot of pressure on a 14-year-old kid with nowhere to turn, physically and emotionally broken down, he will start to make stuff up,” he said. “People always ask me, ‘why would you confess to something you didn’t do?’ We hoped the truth would finally come out in the investigation.”
“Now the Central Park Five has a whole new meaning.”
Fingerprints, hair samples, clothing fiber samples, blood samples — none of the physical evidence linked them to the crime. Even the confessions did not match, each of them telling a different story. “If this was CSI, it would have been case dismissed,” said Mr. Santana. He said the police were determined to get a conviction, under immense pressure from the public, fueled by hundreds of articles in the media.
Convicted, Mr. Santana went to prison until age 21. “It wasn’t until I was free that I gained hope.”
Years later, Sarah Burns, daughter of filmmaker Ken Burns, began investigating the case as an undergraduate student at Yale. The more she learned about the facts of the case, the more outraged she became. Instead of going to law school, she began interviewing each of the five exonerees, eventually publishing a book, The Central Park Five, in 2011. A film of the same name, made with her father, was released in late 2012.
“Our story sounds like fiction,” Mr. Salaam said, “but what happened is that they railroaded us ... The whole city was against us... We were guilty until proven innocent.” Mr. Salaam recalled racial and political tensions surrounding them, as public figures like Donald Trump called for the death penalty to be reinstated before the case had ever gone to trial. Even the late Mayor Ed Koch proudly proclaimed “We got ‘em!”
“in 28% of cases that have been overturned, there has been a false confession.”
“Unfortunately, when people rush to judgment to appease the constituents,” said Mr. Salaam, “sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to. That blunder allowed the real perpetrator to continue to be out on the streets and to commit more crimes.”
The members of the Central Park Five have yet to receive a public apology from the city, with whom they are still engaged in a wrongful-conviction lawsuit.
After speaking in to the entire Upper School in Chapel, the three visitors hosted an hour-long Q & A session with over 100 interested students. Packer students asked the visitors about feelings of vengeance and reconciliation. They asked if Mr. Santana and Mr. Salaam still believed in the justice system. They wondered if anyone on the other side of the case would ever agree to a public dialog.
Mr. Salaam says he enjoys telling his story to student groups nationwide. “It’s therapeutic to talk to people like you,” he said. “It allows us to channel our rage into something more productive.” He hopes that continuing to shine a spotlight on the case will force the public to rethink police practices like the current, controversial “stop and frisk” policy, which many say unevenly targets young people of color.
Said Mr. Santana proudly, “Now the Central Park Five has a whole new meaning.”
(LEFT TO RIGHT) Yusef Salaam, Dr. Sarah Strauss, Edwin Grimsley, Dr. Alice Lurain, and Raymond Santana.