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.”