Community Discussion on the 30th Anniversary of the Exonerated Five

The panel at The Exonerated Five event. Photo Credit: Sherry Shivprasad

by Sherry Shivprasad

Thirty years ago, five teenage boys were arrested and coerced into false confessions by police officers for the rape and beating of a female jogger in Central Park. The Latino and four African-American youths became known as the Central Park Five. They were tried for these crimes and sentenced to a range of six to 13 years. Four of the teenagers served seven years of confinement.

After spending their time in prison, the men were eventually exonerated. A prisoner, Matias Reyes, confessed that he was the perpetrator of these heinous crimes. The DNA evidence received from Reyes matched the DNA at the crime scene. This led the initial charges to be dropped and now the group of men demand to be known as the Exonerated Five.

This case led four York College’s professors to hold a panel discussion about minorities and the justice system. The panel discussion was titled “The Exonerated Five.” York staff, students and community members packed the college’s atrium on Nov. 5 for the discussion. 

The panel discussion commemorated this year’s 30th anniversary of the original arrests and the Netflix series When They See Us released earlier this year. The discussion also looked at the wrongful convictions of incarcerated individuals by New York City’s police. The story of the unjustified imprisonment of the Exonerated Five has been held as a reminder to the community. This case represents the targeting of minorities by law enforcement and the judicial system.

The juveniles were sentenced based on unsubstantiated charges brought up by the State of New York against them. However, new evidence was found that contradicted key testimony from the trial.

“It is uncontested that in January 2002, Matias Reyes, for the first time, informed law enforcement officials that he, alone, committed the rape and other crimes concerning the female jogger,” according to court records. “For which several defendants were convicted, and that DNA testing confirms his participation in the rape. This evidence could not have been produced at trial in 1990, even with due diligence on the defendants’ part. It [DNA] simply did not exist until 2002.”

The Exonerated Five are 38 to 40 years old now. Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, and Antron McCray sued New York City and won. Wise spent the longest time in prison in connection with the case- 13 years- which almost doubles the time spent by the other four teenagers. He was charged with assault, sexual abuse, and riot. 

The panelists and audience described what it was like living in New York City more than three decades ago compared to now. They also noted how smartphones are a vital aid in recording police officers and potentially keeping the honest. The panel also mentioned that students and faculty have a right to inform the college staff about their concerns.

The panelist delivered an in-depth discussion of the Central Park Five case. It is important for the community to understand how the teenagers felt when police officers are aggressive and take matters into their own hands. Especially at a time when young minority 14 to 16-year-olds are still being targeted and coerced by the police.

The police officers had testified and given their version of what happened the night of August 19, 1989. Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was raped and beaten. It was in the early morning of  her regular morning jog in Central Park, according to reports. Meili was left clinging to life in the hospital with a fractured skull. Even now, she suffers from memory loss.

There was no evidence that the 50 detectives in this case had to lock the teenagers up, according to the Daily News website. The sole reason was based on the false confession recordings of the teenagers that were taken by the police officers. The suspects were questioned for hours, and according to them, detectives lied to them and coerced them into giving false confessions.

“Colangelo, who said police had no witnesses to the rape and assault, speculated the gang may have been out late Wednesday because schools were to be closed the next day for Passover,” according to The Daily News in reference to Chief of Detectives Robert Colangelo.

The confessions were provided as evidence in court against the juveniles. The accused were not allowed to contact their parents or to have an attorney to represent them during the detective’s intense questioning, according to the FindLaw for Legal Professionals website. The teenagers stated numerous times that they were not involved in the attack on the jogger.

“They confessed to the crime but later recanted, saying their admissions were the result of police coercion,” according to reports.

Several people in the audience expressed that times have changed. There is a need for teenagers to have more support from their family, friends, and even peers in the community. They can help the youths by stepping into a situation when police officers are harassing or simply stopping them. It is up to the family members to train their children on how to handle themselves when they encounter a risky situation with the police.

It was evident that many individuals felt that their lives could be at risk if they ask a question to a police officer or record them. Bill Hughes, professor of Journalism at York, suggested taking pictures or using the cellphone as a recording device. It can help to gather the critical information about what happens at a crime scene.

“You have a right to film the police doing their jobs on the street,” said Hughes. “They will often tell you to stop filming and if you are at a respectful distance from them you are permitted to film them in a public place.”

“My advice to everybody, and I say something like this to all my students, is to use this tool,” Hughes said holding up his smartphone. “When you are confronted with a situation from somebody from law enforcement, you should have this recording going, and you state to them very clearly that I know that I have a right to use this right now! I want this encounter to be in court.”

Ebonie Jackson, the director of York’s Women’s Center, agreed with Hughes. Jackson recalled how important it is to use the smartphone. She stated it can be used to capture police actions towards minorities. It is imperative to help young adults which she did by using her privileges.

“We have to realize that we need to use our privilege to help others,” said Jackson. “We all need some help but for those who can do more, they should.”

“Sometimes I run across young people getting hemmed in by the police,” Jackson said recalling an incident. “Now I didn’t see what happened but guess what, you’re there and (the police officers) are here running through this kid’s pocket. I pull out my phone, I stand there and I tape the entire thing. That’s exactly what I do because of my privilege. I am a woman of a certain age, and I can do things that the young kid can’t.”

Some of the audience and panelist members acknowledged that there is a need for the community to have more workshops on educating people. This will lead individuals to be aware of policing. They will learn to defend themselves.

A few students from York’s Social Work Master’s program (MSW) set up an engaging activity at the “The Exonerated Five” for the community to participate in.

“The theme is care and it’s important because hopefully if you care about yourself, family, and your community then all of this should be important to you,” said Miya Bass, a York’s MSW student.

It is significant as a community to have open discussions with people who entertain different points of views because everyone will learn from each other. Many people in the conference wanted to see a workshop that included students, judges, teachers, among others to create a tighter community. Ever since the release of the Exonerated Five, they have become more involved in their communities. They are public advocates, fighting for changes in the legislative system.

“The Exonerated Five are from the city and they have become politically active,” said Hughes. “They have contacted state senators and assembly members. They are pushing through legislative change and demanding that interrogations be recorded on video. They are demanding that juveniles always have an attorney present and they have particular legislative initiatives. If you want to get proactive call your local state assembly person or representative and help. Say that you stand with the Exonerated Five and I want you to vote for these changes too.”

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