As a child, Yusef Salaam skateboarded and wanted to make a difference by becoming a hip-hop artist. Raymond Santana kept up with the latest fashion and was still exploring a world of future options.
That all changed when, at the ages of 15 and 14 respectively, Salaam and Santana, along with three other boys, were accused of crimes they did not commit. Formerly referred to as the Central Park Five, this group is now known as the Exonerated Five.
At an event at Page Auditorium moderated by Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke professor of African and African American studies, the two spoke of their story’s connection to racial bias, the flawed criminal justice system and the media’s role in both. They described their story as one of personal evolution, resilience and even love.
“We were survivors of the criminal system of injustice,” Salaam said, referring to the social stigma associated with what was revealed as a wrongful conviction.
The five teenagers—Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—were arrested in connection with the attack of Trisha Meili, who was raped and beaten while jogging in Central Park in New York City. She was hurt so badly that she spent 12 days in a coma and woke up with no memory of the assault.
The five confessed after hours of interrogation from police, and they became the center of a storm of media coverage. The suspects were described as a “Wolf Pack.” Now-President Donald Trump took out newspaper advertisements that declared “Bring Back the Death Penalty, Bring Back Our Police!”
Santana spoke to the way in which this biased media coverage led the public to conclude the five were guilty.
“They just painted these pictures,” Santana said of the news media. He noted that they seized on facts like Salaam’s possession of a ninja star medallion to spin “stories to make it look bad in the public eye, which in turn made the people turn their backs on us because they thought that we were guilty, and if they didn’t think we were guilty of rape then we were guilty of something.”
This, he said, made it “easy for the courts to convict us.”
Salaam said that the New York Police Department, including homicide detectives who had at least 20 years of experience, must have known that the five were not guilty.
However, the police told the media that the five were with a gang of teenagers who were assaulting people in Central Park that evening, or “wilding.”
“They knew that these stories were false, and then they sent this information to the media,” Salaam said. “The media then should have done its due diligence and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to fact check this stuff.’”
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The accused and their families personally experienced the public outcry. Salaam brought to the talk a copy of a letter he received that said God would punish them for the assault.
The five were tried, convicted and sentenced in 1990 to six to 13 years in prison. Twelve years later, the men were exonerated when serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed that he had assaulted Meili. Afterwards, the Exonerated Five sued the New York City government and settled for $41 million.
The men were featured in a 2012 Ken Burns documentary and a 2019 Netflix miniseries directed by Ava DuVernay, who coined the term “Exonerated Five.” For Salaam, the films allowed the five to tell their stories in a way that the public had never previously heard.
“Folks had never heard our voices until [Burns’s] film came out,” he said. “And then we had our voices back.”
Despite the positive media coverage, scars from the false conviction remain. Santana described the lingering fear that someone would try to attack him who believed that he was guilty of Meili’s assault.
“I think about it every day,” he said. “That stuff constantly plays out in my mind… What if somebody did that? How would I react? How would I respond to it? Suppose I’m with my daughter at the time. You’ve got to think about those scenarios, just to be prepared.”
There are still deep flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, Salaam said.
“This is not new,” he said. “This is a continuation of a system that has been looking at black and brown bodies as collateral damage for centuries.”
Salaam highlighted the issue of privatized prisons, saying that “they’ve got a cell waiting for each and every one of us.” He compared incarceration to slavery, noting that the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery, made an exception for criminals.
He also noted that “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander’s book about mass incarceration, has been banned in prisons.
The men said that the challenges they have faced helped shape them into the people they are today, despite the havoc that their conviction wreaked on their lives and the problems that remain with the justice system.
“Many years ago, someone actually said, ‘If you could go back and you could change anything, would you change it?’ And I had to think about it, and then my answer was, ‘No,’” Santana said. “Because going through this process, it has made me the man I am today. And I’m proud of that man.”
Indeed, both men have made a name for themselves in the years since their exoneration. Salaam has become a public speaker and proponent for criminal justice reform. Santana never forgot his childhood dreams and started a fashion line called Park Madison NYC, donating part of the proceeds to the Innocence Project—a nonprofit that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. One of the shirts features the first names of the Exonerated Five.
Salaam said that the five’s experience serves as a reminder of what people are capable of, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
“The Central Park jogger case is actually a love story between God and his people,” he said. “With us, what was so beautiful about what happened, I think, even in prison we got college degrees… If we were in a place that is called the belly of the beast, imagine what you can do as a free person.”