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.”
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.