The Exonerated Five
On the night of April 19, 1989, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Anton McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise, all black or Hispanic and aged between 14 and 16 years old, were arrested and questioned regarding their involvement in the brutal assault of 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili. Meili, attacked and raped while jogging through Central Park, was left in critical condition and spent twelve days in a coma only to arise to nationwide outrage and hysteria fueled by the mainstream media and their depiction of the alleged perpetrators as barbaric, villainous, and immediately threatening to the safety and livelihood of New York’s elite. The heinous physical details of the attack were broadcast to the masses, leading the incident as well as its succeeding chain of events to become one of the most publicized and divisive crime stories in New York City’s recent history.
Public fear stemming from the sensationalized narratives surrounding these boys fed into a palpable racial and socio-economic divide, which only made things more difficult for New York’s inner-city communities, already plighted by the arrival of crack-cocaine. The increasing interracial tension in New York manifested itself through the murder of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins, a young black man who was brutally attacked, shot, and killed by a mob of white assailants weeks after the assault of Meili and seemingly in retaliation. Months after the attack, Donald Trump, then a prominent figure in New York’s elite social and business landscape, was quoted in saying that “Criminals must be told that their civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins!” He went on to call for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York specifically for the alleged actions of these five teenagers.
Through illegal questioning tactics, New York City detectives coerced forced confessions out of each of the young men. None of the five boys admitted to raping the woman themselves, but all five confessed to being an accomplice to the attack. Within weeks, however, all of the young men retracted their statements under the claim that their confessions were false and extracted through intimidation and deception. Regardless, Santana, Richardson, McCray, Salaam, and Wise were all convicted and sent to prison, spending between six and thirteen years incarcerated for a crime that they did not commit.
In 2002, Matias Reyes, a man who was already serving a life sentence for four counts of rape and the murder of a pregnant woman, announced that he was the sole perpetrator of the assault. Through further investigation, it was apparent that the DNA from the semen found on and inside of the victim matched that of Reyes. Furthermore, investigators discovered that hair found on the crime scene and used as evidence in the boys’ trial did not match any of the five convicted young men. Even after this discovery, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as well as the NYPD and various city officials would not declare the innocence of the plaintiffs and continued to deny any wrongdoing on the part of prosecutors and detectives responsible for the boys’ false imprisonment, causing them to spend more time in prison.
The federal civil rights suit, filed in December of 2003, posed several allegations against city and state officials including the lack of due process, racial discrimination, and the falsification of evidence in an attempt to attain quick convictions. Partners Myron Beldock, Karen Dippold, and Jonathan C. Moore represented four of the five plaintiffs and spearheaded an intense legal process that lasted for over a decade. In September of 2004, a settlement of $41 Million was reached, adding up to approximately $1 Million for every year each plaintiff spent wrongly incarcerated.