How the Central Park Five Still Haunt America

By Touré Illustration by Justin Page

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I. PROLOGUE It is one of the seminal stories in New York City’s history, a tale so rich, so elaborate, so surprising and so tragic that it demands to be told and retold. It is the subject of a lengthy 1991 essay by Joan Didion called “Sentimental Journeys” and the 2012 Ken Burns film The Central Park Five. It’s a story that centers on sacred city real estate and a horrific crime: a shocking gang rape in a public place that cemented middle-class New Yorkers’ notions about their vulnerability to those they saw as lawless, fearsome, monstrous ghetto youths. The word wilding remains a legacy of the case, lingering in the collective memory as a reminder of the violent potential of the underclass.

The case of the Central Park Five is also about a rush to judgment leading to wrongful convictions that destroyed the lives of five teenagers who served a total of 37 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. More than two decades later, the case grinds on. Will these men ever find true freedom? And are the injustices they suffered worth the $250 million in compensation they are suing the city for?

It began on the evening of April 19, 1989—25 years ago this month—when a group of 30 to 40 black and Latino kids assembled in Central Park. Some of them knew one another, but most did not. Some would later be convicted of robbery, assault and rioting in connection with violent incidents that happened in the park that spring night, incidents that led people to report that gangs of young men were attacking joggers and cyclists. Police later told reporters the kids had said they were “wilding,” but it’s likely the cops misinterpreted a reference to a hit song by Tone Loc called “Wild Thing.” That night a female jogger was beaten and raped and left for dead. When she was found she had lost 80 percent of her blood and was so covered in dirt and mud that at first police thought she was a homeless black woman. But she was white and 28 years old with an MBA from Yale and a job at a Wall Street investment bank. This woman, whose identity was shielded by the press for years, turned out to be one of those smart and ambitious New Yorkers who people say make this city great. Her name is Trisha Meili, and her tragic story set the city ablaze. Amazingly, she survived.

Police arrested a slew of suspects. After spending the night in custody, subjected to brutal, reportedly violent police interrogation, five teenage boys had implicated one another—though not themselves—in the rape: Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kharey Wise (he would later change the spelling of his first name to “Korey”) and Kevin Richardson. A narrative fell neatly into place, described later by Didion as one in which the city was “systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass.” At the time, the idea that these five black and Latino teenagers were innocent until proven guilty was hard for most citizens to take seriously. Even members of many of the boys’ extended families doubted them. Mayor Ed Koch told the media he was calling the boys “alleged” rapists “because,” he said, “that’s the requirement.” Then he scoffed as if the word alleged tasted bitter in his mouth.

The five were put on trial and swiftly convicted, even though, as a later report by the New York district attorney’s office noted, “there proved to be no physical or forensic evidence.” The case that resulted in their convictions “rested almost entirely on the statements made by the defendants,” though “the confessions had serious weaknesses.” Meili, the victim, was so badly beaten she could remember nothing about the attack or the attackers.

All the confessions differed in material ways, according to the report: “Who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault and where in the sequence of events the attack took place.” Jurors noticed these inconsistencies, and one said publicly that 16-year-old Korey Wise appeared to have been “pressured” by police to make self-incriminating statements. Another juror saw coercion in the videotaped confession of Wise, a young boy frightened by detectives into confessing, “as if he had been told to say it.”

Still, even jurors who suspected the confessions had been coerced voted to convict. Such was the atmosphere in New York in 1989, when crack was rampant and there were 1,905 murders (compared with 419 in 2012). The boys were sent to prison, where they would collectively serve more than three decades behind bars. By 2002 all had been released but one, Korey Wise. That year a fellow inmate approached Wise and apologized. Wise was confused. Thinking the apology was for a fight the two had had more than a decade earlier, he shrugged it off. But the man, Matias Reyes, who had been convicted of being a serial rapist, went to authorities and confessed to having raped the Central Park jogger by himself. His DNA was found in her cervix. He told police details of the crime they had never released and answered questions that had long befuddled investigators. The statute of limitations had passed, but the district attorney’s office investigated and recommended that all charges against the Central Park Five be vacated and Wise released.

It was a stunning reversal. Shortly thereafter, the Central Park Five and 15 members of their families filed a $250 million civil lawsuit against the city and the NYPD. Five teenagers wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit, robbed of their youth and punished by long stretches in prison: Surely someone made mistakes here, right? Not so fast. The Central Park Five have suffered through a two-decade ordeal for which, so far, no one has admitted responsibility or even fault. Do the people of New York City owe something to these young men who lost their freedom, their youth and in some cases their families and their faith? For a decade the city has said no. The authorities have not even proposed a settlement, and the suit has inched through the legal process, proceeding at all deliberate speed. But now a day of reckoning may be at hand. The new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, a liberal with an interracial family, campaigned on ending the policing practice known as “stop-and-frisk,” confronting racial inequality and paying close attention to the needs of the black community. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, the city’s mayor for the entirety of the Central Park Five’s lawsuit, was thought to be among those who kept the case from being resolved. Meanwhile the men of the Central Park Five are still waiting, still scarred by the presumption of guilt, still stuck in a prison, if only an invisible one. Wise, now 41 and the most emotional and bitter of the five, put it to me bluntly: “I want to be free.”

II. DAMAGES

Wise showed up for an interview at his lawyer’s office wearing black jeans, black boots, a black long-sleeve cotton shirt and a black skullcap. He is pleasant and polite, yet he still exudes the air of prison, as if the habits of incarceration are a stench he cannot wash off. Asked if he’s still institutionalized, he says, “Very.” He sees it in small things, like wearing sandals in the shower, as well as in larger things, such as his penchant for isolation. “I really don’t give a damn whether you be close or not,” he says. “You ain’t do my bid with me, I really don’t give a damn about you like that.”

Raymond Santana is 39 years old. After nearly six years in prison, he was released but found himself unable to find work. “Once they pull you up in the system and they see you have a rape charge, that’s not gonna happen,” he says. “And if they say, ‘All right, so you got a rape charge. What happened?’ I say, ‘Well, you know, I’m the Central Park jogger case.’ And they go, ‘See you later, buddy.’ I reached the point where I was like, There’s nothing I can do; there’s nobody that’s gonna hire me, and I thought, I gotta just take this situation into my own hands.” So he began selling drugs. He lasted a few months before he was caught with 218 bags of crack in his home. He did four years, a sentence extended by his felony conviction on the rape charge, which had made him unemployable in the first place. He was released more than a decade ago but is still more comfortable in tiny rooms. “My room is very small at my father’s house. There are times when I go there and close the door, and I’m at ease. Because it feels like a cell, you know?”

Yusef Salaam, 40, says he has not had a good night’s sleep in decades. During the day he remains anxious and jumpy, as if chaos could erupt at any moment, as when he was in prison. “Just this weekend we were sitting on the stage of the Riverside Church,” he says, “and the curtain was drawn behind us. All of a sudden I felt somebody right there, and it was someone pulling the curtain closed. But that instinct came, and I was like, Oh, what’s about to go down? You automatically know where the exits are. You kind of have it all mapped out—if something happens I already know what to do. That’s what I call an unhealthy reality.” That constant sense of dread makes it challenging for him to maintain his composure at work. “In prison, if somebody looked at you wrong, you might be like, Where’s my ice pick? In corporate America, if somebody looks at you wrong, business is going to continue.”

For Santana too it’s a daily battle to control his emotions. “I could be a calm person and somebody could tick me off and that aggression can come out,” he says.

Except for Santana, all the Central Park Five have avoided re-offending, and they have all struggled to find meaningful work. Keeping money in the bank has been nearly impossible. The only one who seems to have a good job is Salaam, who arrived for his interview looking business-suave in a large overcoat draped over a nice, dark suit and tie. It’s the fruit of many years of effort. “When I came home from prison I couldn’t get a job. Every door to success was closed in our faces,” he says. He eventually went to work for the organization his mother started when he was in prison, People United for Children. His knack for computers led him to teach himself web design, which led to work in the technology end of health care, which led to hospital administration. He makes about $100,000 a year but says he lives paycheck to paycheck because he has five biological daughters and three stepchildren.

Kevin Richardson, 39, works in a geriatrics center making about $33,000 a year. Santana is a clerk at a pension-and-benefits center. He makes a little less than Richardson and has about $500 in the bank. Wise does not have a paying job; he survives on disability payments.

For years after being released, most of them had to attend classes for sex offenders four times a month, paying $20 a class. “It was mandatory that we go to these classes,” Richardson says. “And when they come around to ask us, ‘Okay, Kevin, what did you do?’ I’d say, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ They don’t like that exactly.” They were perceived to be in denial. “We’d say, ‘We don’t belong here. We did not commit the crime.’ ” They got kicked out of many groups.

They all say they lost their youth. “We feel—I feel—it’s like I’m playing catch-up,” Richardson says. “I feel like we never got to reach our full potential as kids. And this sentence put a scar [on us] that you can’t erase.”

Some of them lost family. “I came from a big family,” Santana says, “and this case made all my family members think I was guilty, and they shunned me. They turned away from me. At the end of the day, all I had was my father, my sister and my brother-in-law at the time. That was it.” (It wasn’t until a recent screening of the Burns film that he was able to reconcile with his extended family.) Their years in prison damaged their parents. Santana says that while he was incarcerated his father began drinking to excess and his mother died of cancer. She passed away before he was exonerated. Wise’s father also became a heavy drinker while he was away, and Wise believes he drank himself to death. He and his mother don’t speak much anymore, he says, because she can no longer bear to hear about the case. “It’s eaten her whole life up,” he says.

Antron McCray, 40, moved far away from New York, changed his name and tried to distance himself from it all in what some of the others have called a self-constructed witness-protection program. He is very private, sharing none of his past with those around him, reportedly working the night shift as a forklift operator in a warehouse. “He lost faith in God,” says Santana, who speaks to him often. “He really was very bitter.” McCray is the only one who does not appear on camera in the Burns film, and he has participated in few of the post-release events.

Richardson too has seen his faith waver. He says he was raised a Christian, attending church every Sunday, but this journey shook him to his core. “I was questioning, Why did this happen to me? Here I was, average kid. I didn’t get in trouble. I went to school. I went to a music school, for crying out loud. I was into art. I was just your average 14-year-old kid. And I still wonder why this happened to me, why this happened to us, why this happened to our families. And for a while, I lost my faith. Even though my mother always told me the truth would come out. She always told me that. But here I am. I did a prison sentence already. And I know.…”

He says the truth has still not come out.

“What happened to the lady jogger was a bad, hideous thing. I mean, she lost 80 percent of her blood. But it wasn’t us, you know? So all that was going through my head. I know that’s a bold thing, to question God, but I did. And as I say it today, I mean, God knew what he was doing as far as using me as well as the others as a tool. But I still don’t understand, to be honest with you.”

Of the five men, Wise seems the most deeply scarred, his pain barely contained beneath the surface. “If you’re not bitter, I don’t want to be around you, because I’m bitter,” he says. “I’m very bitter. I’ll always be bitter. Because I’m not exactly living the life that I’d really want to live. I want to live comfortably, not be harassed by those officers. I’m too old for that. I want to live comfortably, just function normally.” Instead, he says, he spends as much time on the case as he would on a nine-to-five job. “I just try to flip it and make myself into his lawyer,” he says of the kid he was. “I’m talking for him because nobody did in his time. I’m talking for him. He’s been through hell. That kid dies every year. For 13 years he died. So I’m being his lawyer. I’m telling people what he’s been through. I’m going to always be little Korey’s advocate.” He’s tired, it seems, in his soul. He says it’s not about the money anymore. It’s about getting free of this never-ending war that’s pulling down everyone around him. “Real talk,” he says. “A lot of sorrow is happening to the family. A lot of people is passing away. Cancer’s spreading around like it’s a new dance. I’m just playing the survival game.”

III. JUSTICE DELAYED

The $250 million civil suit against the city and the police department was filed in 2003. Eleven years later, it hasn’t reached the trial phase, and even the deposition phase is, as of this writing, incomplete. “They said it was gonna be a long battle,” Santana says of the attorneys. “It’s gonna take a lot of years.” Part of the reason the process has taken so long is understandable—this is a major case with 20 plaintiffs to depose, dozens of witnesses to interview, multiple investigations to comb through, pages of discovery and litigation over what information each side is entitled to. But the Central Park Five’s lawyers say New York City’s attorneys have deliberately slowed the pace of the case, pouring molasses into the gears to make all this harder and more arduous for the plaintiffs. Roger Wareham, an attorney on the case, says, “The clear, directed strategy is to make this last as long as possible. That certainly seems to be the theory. And then maybe you get defections. People start to fall by the wayside, or by the time you depose certain people they’ve forgotten things because it’s 24 years ago. People just forget, or people get sick. People die.”

Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, another of the Central Park Five’s attorneys, agrees. “Part of what they’re doing is subpoenaing every single public document on our clients—every Medicaid, every doctor they’ve been to, every employment, every school. I mean thousands of documents. They get those documents and review them—you know, if you’ve ever been in the hospital, maybe this doctor sees you for one minute, so then they subpoena more records. What are they going to find in there? Nothing that has to do with the case. They’re hoping to dirty them up like they’re bad people. It’s such an ugly thing to do. Korey’s mom had a complete breakdown during her deposition. It was awful. It’s one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my life. They tried to make her look like a bad mom—clearly with the strategy that if there’s either a settlement or a trial where damages are ordered, they’re going to try to mitigate the damages by saying, ‘Well, if they didn’t go to jail for this, they would’ve gone to jail for something else.’”

Lisa Bloom, a civil rights attorney who is not connected to the case, says, “Even in a system riddled with unfair delays, 10 years is absurd and outrageous. It is the judge’s job to move the case along. Every defendant tries to delay. The system is failing these wrongly convicted men every day this drags on. That’s the bottom line.”

The Central Park Five’s lawyers say their case rests in large part on the confessions central to the original trials—confessions elicited through intimidation, deprivation and force. The Central Park Five told me they made false statements because they were exhausted and sleep deprived after hours of interrogation, because they were told they could go home once they gave up the others and—in some cases—because of violence. Salaam says he heard the police beating up Wise. Wise says he was threatened and assaulted by Detective Robert Nugent. “He had a one-handed grip on my face,” Wise says, recalling what the detective said next: “‘I want a story from you. You’re not gonna leave outta here till I get a story from you.’ He slapped me twice with his right hand across my face.”

The lawyers also contend the city is fighting so hard because some people close to this high-profile case grew rich and powerful from their work on it and cannot afford to have their reputations soiled. David Kreizer, one of the Central Park Five’s attorneys, maintains that for some people this “was their springboard into either their major career as a public servant or their major career in the private sector. That’s certainly, I think, a big factor. I think those people are still politically connected to people who are still in power.” Several sources I spoke with say two people best fit this description: Ray Kelly, who was appointed first deputy commissioner in 1990, months before the trials began, and became commissioner the year the verdicts were vacated; and former assistant district attorney Linda Fairstein, who was part of the district attorney’s office when they were arrested, was a leader of the sex crimes unit and assigned the lead attorney, Elizabeth Lederer.

“At least from what we can see,” Wareham says, “Linda Fairstein has a large stake in maintaining the fiction that this was done properly, because a large part of her subsequent career as a novelist and an expert was based on this prosecution—not solely, but a large part of it. So to have that exposed as a lie, to have that exposed as real misconduct or criminal conduct on the part of the police department and the district attorney’s office may have a lot to do with their unwillingness to settle, to make an offer. There’s no way they can convince me they did not know that these children didn’t commit that crime. My view is that they knew the children didn’t commit the crime, and they were going to get a conviction regardless.”

Others close to the case say it’s silly to think the city would spend so much on this because of Fairstein’s book sales; they claim the real reason is that people believe the Central Park Five are guilty and acted in concert with the serial rapist who confessed to the crime. An in-depth report from the DA’s office argues that an extensive investigation turned up no evidence of the rapist having ever known any of the five, but some from the prosecution side see a riot in the dark involving a group of young men who did not all know one another. They point to blood on some of the boys’ clothing, though none of this blood matched the jogger’s. Meili lost an extraordinary amount of blood, but they say little got on the boys because she bled from the back of her head. People from the city’s side also point to semen on the boys’ underwear, yet none of their DNA was found on the jogger. Ultimately, though, these evidentiary questions are about attempting to prove their guilt, and people from the city maintain that whether the boys are guilty is not the central question.

“It’s not about guilt or innocence,” says Howard Wolfson, former counselor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “but was purposeful judicial misconduct committed?” Michael Cardozo, who was corporation counsel—the city’s top lawyer—under Bloomberg, answered my questions with a written statement: “While we recognize this case has generated strong reactions, our role as attorneys representing the city is to consider the specific, core question raised by these claims: whether there was any deliberate wrongdoing by police and prosecutors. The answer to the question, as shown by all the evidence, including evidence that is confidential and not available to people outside the case, is no. We have an obligation to protect all taxpayers. We are therefore moving forward with the litigation.”

Sources familiar with the city’s case dismiss the notion that the lawsuit has taken a long time or that there is a strategy to slow the wheels of justice. They say this is a case with more than 100 witnesses, three major investigations and hundreds of pages of discovery, so it’s understandable that it has taken this long. There was also a motion to dismiss filed in 2003 that was not decided until 2007. But sources I spoke to maintain that the city has spent more defending the suit than the price of a realistic settlement.

People close to the case also say that even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that a confession is false, it does not necessarily mean it was coerced or obtained illegally. They say police interrogators took great care to interview the boys in a sensitive manner because they were young. They also feel there are enough consistencies within the statements of the five, and among the total of 39 who were questioned, to justify the conclusion that the boys were involved and that there was probable cause, given the information the police and prosecutors had at the time. As proof of the boys’ violent intentions, they point to the several other assaults in Central Park that night.

The lawsuit could turn on the plaintiffs’ ability to prove a lack of probable cause and to prove actual malice in prosecution. Should the facts have led a reasonable person to believe the accused had committed the rape? Were the confessions the product of illegal coercion? It’s a civil lawsuit, so the jury must weigh whether there is a preponderance of evidence; that is, whether the charges are more likely than not—rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, the higher standard of a criminal trial. If a jury believes the police used threats, lies, false promises and violence to induce the false confessions, then the police and prosecutors could be liable. If the jurors find the police and prosecutors did not induce false confessions through improper coercion, then they could conclude there was probable cause to charge and prosecute and no constitutional deprivation occurred. It’s impossible to predict which way a trial will go, because different eyes have drawn different conclusions from this evidence: A 1990 review by Judge Thomas Galligan rejected the idea of coerced confessions and found all constitutional accommodations had been provided; however, Galligan presided over the original trial, so his report was a review of his own work. In 1993 Salaam appealed his conviction from prison; it was upheld, but Judge Vito Titone dissented, noting significant problems with the interrogation process. Judge Titone’s harsh dissent blasts the work of Fairstein and her officers when they interrogated Salaam, deliberately keeping him apart from three adult family members, including his mother.

“What emerges from these facts is a picture of law enforcement officers who were so anxious to extract a full and complete confession that they did everything within their power to keep this youthful suspect isolated and away from any adults who might interfere,” Titone wrote. “Furthermore, there can have been no other reason for the decisions of Detective [John] Taglioni and Assistant District Attorney Fairstein to prevent defendant’s aunt, ‘Big Brother’ and mother from speaking to him other than to capitalize on his youth and isolation and to assure that he did not receive aid and advice from the supportive adults.”

In an interview with Newsday, Titone said, “I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old’s confession.” He added, “Fairstein wanted to make a name.”

It was not the first time the NYPD of that era had been charged with cutting corners when they thought someone was guilty. The 1994 report of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption, commonly known as the Mollen Commission, concluded that falsification was common. The report spoke of “a deep-rooted perception among many officers of all ranks within the department that nothing is really wrong with compromising facts to fight crime in the real world.” As one dedicated officer put it, police officers often view falsification as “doing God’s work”—whatever it takes to get a suspected criminal off the streets. This attitude is so entrenched, especially in high-crime precincts, that when investigators confronted one recently arrested officer with evidence of perjury, he asked in disbelief, “What’s wrong with that? They’re guilty.” But what if they’re not?

IV: A SEMBLANCE OF JUSTICE

Some believe this case asks hard questions about what sort of city New York is—and what sort of society we are. At times it seems we are a nation that can overlook the destruction of black bodies and black lives while ensuring all possible protections for white citizens. It seems a stretch to think that, even though the wrong people were convicted despite a paucity of physical evidence, everyone in law enforcement was working with the best of intentions. But maybe they were. In New York the entwined issues of race and inequality never really go away. In recent years, they have resurfaced around the police practice of stop-and-frisk, which in large part decided the Democratic mayoral primary in favor of Bill de Blasio. De Blasio, New York’s mayor since January, will have a great deal of influence over the future of the Central Park Five.

Many people close to the case say Mayor Bloomberg was among those who believed the Central Park Five should not be remunerated and his recalcitrance is why the suit has dragged on for years. The de Blasio administration may approach this matter differently. In a phone interview in February 2013, early in his mayoral campaign, de Blasio told me he sees the Central Park Five as emblematic of some of the racial inequalities he talked about in his campaign. “Such willful miscarriage of justice by folks who worked for the city,” he said. “It’s unacceptable what’s happened to these now not so young guys, and they deserve some semblance of justice.” Asked what he would do about it if he were elected, de Blasio, a former public advocate in the Bloomberg administration, said, “I’ve spent four years of my life in the mayor’s office, and I cannot believe this couldn’t be solved by a mayor. This is the kind of thing that in the first week in office, if I were mayor, I would order a settlement. I think if the mayor says that it has to be resolved, it’s solved. The Law Department doesn’t tell the mayor what to do; the mayor tells the Law Department what to do. I certainly would order a settlement immediately.” In October, after winning the all-important Democratic primary, he said, through his communications director, that he stood behind those words.

To Salaam, Richardson, Santana, Wise and McCray, the men trapped in this Kafkaesque journey, the new mayor’s promise must seem like the glimmer of an endpoint. But even if the lawsuit somehow finds its way to a settlement, the men can never really move on. They speak of themselves as living members of history—Salaam calls the group “the modern Scottsboro Boys.”

None of them envisions a future that takes them far away from this terrible episode in their lives. Salaam says if the city were ever to pay him, the money would go to help others who are wrongly convicted. “A lot of people think we want to be sitting on some beach somewhere sipping mai tais,” he says. “The reality of the matter is this will allow us to continue to fight against these types of atrocities. We don’t want to see 10 years from now another Central Park Five. We don’t want a Trayvon Martin in New York City. If you have money, you can choose to join the cause. You can help pay for people’s legal defenses. It would make it a lot easier for me to be an activist.”

Santana echoes this sentiment. “We feel like the Central Park Five have to transcend [our fate] and go into a different direction to help people with programs to take care of our kids in Harlem, something that could get them off the streets. In 1989 nobody wanted to invest in us. We have to give back and invest in them. Somebody has to look out for them.”

Central Park was the starting point of their journey, but understandably the men say they don’t go there anymore. “And it’s a shame,” says Richardson, “because it’s a park that’s open to the public. But I am not comfortable whatsoever. My mother to this day lives across the street, but I don’t want to walk next to the park. I’ll just go in a different direction.” Wise longs to leave the city, the only place he’s ever lived, longs to get away from the pain of being here. He dreams of moving an hour into New Jersey, which he speaks of as if it’s far away. He says he’s been stopped and frisked more than 10 times, and he senses a vendetta against him by cops who want to harass him or catch him doing something. Even when he’s surrounded by his legal team in the middle of working through the case, he doesn’t feel safe because the lawyers on both sides and the psychiatrists keep asking him to relive it, to talk about how he feels. He can’t escape it; it remains present in his life. And the deep dives into his past keep him bitter.

“Shooter bias” is the principle, established in studies, that people are more likely to say they see a gun in the hand of an unarmed black person than in the hand of an unarmed white person. This is like the notion of the crimalblkman (from “criminal black man”), a word coined by Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law. The word highlights how blackness and criminality have become synonymous in the public consciousness—and how black men are too often assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. These sorts of deadly assumptions allowed stop-and-frisk, a policing policy that encouraged police to place their hands on as many young black and Latino men as possible. For years in New York hundreds of thousands were stopped each year. More than 90 percent were found to be not guilty of any crime, yet they had to submit to a humiliating form of profiling before they were let go.

In 2013 a federal judge found the policy to be unconstitutional, but in countless incidents black men are approached with the presumption of guilt. This is perhaps why Trayvon Martin died. George Zimmerman spotted him in the distance and told a 911 dispatcher that Martin was up to no good, on drugs and had his hand on his waistband, implying he had a gun. It turns out he did not have a gun, was not a criminal and had just a trace amount of marijuana in his system. But Zimmerman’s assumptions set in motion a deadly chain of events. The Central Park Five were caught in a web spun from the assumption of guilt. And no matter what happens—even if the Central Park Five are paid millions—their lives were tragically altered because they were assumed to be guilty. Indeed, no matter what happens to them, there is no reason it couldn’t happen again today, no reason another group of black and Latino boys couldn’t be rounded up for a crime they didn’t commit, presumed guilty despite a dearth of evidence, convicted amid a heightened sense of civic tension and then marched into prison. It could happen anywhere in the country, and without a stroke of luck that brings the truth to light, these boys could languish in prison for a long, long time. And who would believe them?


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