The Central Park Five: How the Truth Set Them Free

The five defendants in the Central Park jogger case in court in New York on February 23, 1990| Courtesy of nypl.org

Winner of the Fall 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Social History”

In 1989, members of the media, as well as portions of the criminal justice system of New York City, wrongfully accused a group of Black and Latino male teens of sexually assaulting a white female who had been jogging in Central Park. She would become known simply as “the jogger.”1

In the evening of April 19, 1989, a female rape victim was attacked while jogging in New York’s Central Park. The jogger, Trisha Meili, who was a 28-year old white investment banker, was beaten, raped, and left for dead in a ravine. Several other joggers and bicyclists had been assaulted the same evening, and police gathered about 30 teenage boys for questioning.2 Five African-Americans and Latino youths—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana Jr.—were some of the boys that had been round up and taken in for questioning in the attacks that occurred that night at the park. At first, they were going to be sent home with summonses, but then Detective Jose Rosario called the desk officer and told them to continue to hold the teenagers as news about the jogger had been discovered after being dispatched to Metropolitan Hospital and seeing the jogger.3

The detectives at the police station began to interview Kevin Richardson, but it became a little bit more than just a plain interview. The goal of any interrogation is to elicit a confession from a guilty party, not to investigate the truth of a denial. The common tactics used to gain confessions are based on the idea that only guilty people are interrogated in the first place. In theory, when a suspect is brought in for questioning, detectives begin with an “interview,” in which information is gathered and the police make an assessment as to the guilt or innocence of the party. In this step, a non accusatory question-and-answer period is meant to allow the detective an opportunity to gather more information and to make observations about the suspect that might indicate that he or she is lying. Once they decide that they are speaking with a guilty party, the interrogation begins. Detectives often believe that they are experts at separating truth from lies, but it has been shown that this is false. In Kevin Richardson’s case, scientific evidence was not yet available to the detectives, so their decision to aggressively interrogate Kevin and others who were in the park that night was entirely based on their own instinctive assumptions about the young men, particularly about their race.4 In New York City at the time of the Central Park jogger incident, many of the events unfolding in the city revolved around race or were racialized.5

Black and white photo of a police officer in New York | Courtesy of pxhere.com

Racism can be defined as a system of oppression based on racial/ethnic group designations in which a pervasive ideology of racial superiority and inferiority provides the foundation for structural inequalities, intergroup conflict, discrimination, and prejudice. Racial discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes are the building blocks as well as the products of racism. Stereotypes are cognitive over-generalizations, the labels associated with different groups. Prejudice is an attitude formed about a group of people without adequate evidence. When prejudgement is added to stereotypes, racial prejudice exists. Racial discrimination is differential treatment and behavior based on race. Among the most intensive behavioral manifestations of racism are hate crimes and discriminatory violence. Physical attacks, verbal assaults, vandalism, harassment, and other hate-motivated acts of violence continue to be perpetuated against people of color and immigrant groups.6 However, the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has argued that the nature of racial discourse has changed and that there is a new way of expressing prejudicial attitudes, which he calls “color-blind racism.” Color-blind racism is the dominant racial ideology in post-civil rights America and unlike its predecessor, Jim Crow racism, it is subtle, apparently nonracial, and avoids traditional racist discourse, but still results in racism nevertheless.7 Viewing the events that would occur in New York during this time through the contemporary lens of racial color blindness prevents one from seeing their relationship to traditional systems of inequality based on race and gender. Unlike the period of “traditional” racism, post-civil rights society has to contend with inclusion. American institutions can no longer exclude people based on race and gender. In this new era, nonbiological attributes such as expressions, geography, and dress were used to construct identity and often to represent one’s social location.8 Because of these ideologies, those that soon became known as the Central Park Five went through what is to come later on.

Over the course of nearly three hours, the detectives convinced Kevin to provide a coerced statement, admitting that he’d witnessed and even taken part in the rape of the female jogger. Though Kevin had not admitted to raping the jogger, the fact that he had placed himself at the scene, saying he had touched the jogger and witnessed others rape her, was legally just as significant. The detectives had what they needed, though Kevin had gotten many of the details wrong, most notably inventing shorts that the jogger had not been wearing, describing a tank top rather than a long-sleeved shirt, and mentioning that someone had “ripped” her blouse. At one point during the interrogation, the detectives noticed a scratch on Kevin’s left cheek. Kevin explained that he’d gotten a bruise from the police officer who’d tackled him the night before, but the detectives didn’t believe him. Later on when Raymond was being interviewed at the Central Park Precinct, the detectives yelled and swore at Raymond. They asked him the same question over and over, and various detectives kept coming in and out of the room, sometimes pulling out his guardian out with them, so that he could be more vigorously interrogated. Three hours later, Raymond’s interrogation had produced a detailed written statement, in which he admitted having witnessed the attack on Antonio Diaz, “the bum,” from afar, as well as the assaults on several male joggers near the reservoir. It mentioned nothing about the rape of the female jogger.9

Meanwhile, as Raymond’s interrogation was being conducted, Antron was taken in to begin questioning at the 20th Precinct. With intense pressure from the detectives on Antron to admit that he had participated in the rape, Antron’s mother was crying and yelling, insisting that Antron was telling them everything that he knew. Although Antron’s father believed that his son was telling the truth and had not participated in the rape they were accusing him of, he was also afraid that they were not going to let Antron go unless they got what they wanted. Bobby, Antron’s father, spoke to Antron alone, telling him that he believed him but that he had to tell the police what they wanted to hear, or else they were going to put him in jail. Later on, Antron had signed an incriminating statement. In it, he admitted to participating in the attack on the “bum,” assaulting a male jogger with a pipe, and holding the arm of a female jogger while others “jumped on.” Antron placed the rape of the female jogger before the assault at the reservoir, rather than by the Loch, almost a half a mile away, where the victim was actually found, and he incorrectly described what the jogger had been wearing.10

Mugshots of each member of the Central Park Five | Courtesy of thesource.com

Back at the Central Park Precinct, while Raymond’s father and grandmother were out getting food, Detective Harrigan spoke to Raymond alone, despite the standard practice of not interrogating suspects under sixteen without a parent or guardian present. After that conversation, Raymond made an addition to his original statement. The new part said that after they had beaten the male jogger, Raymond had seen Kevin Richardson, with a scratch on his face, “struggling” with a female jogger. “Steve [Lopez] came over and was holding her arms with his legs, Antron came and started ripping her clothes off, Antron pulled her pants off and she was screaming. Steve covered her mouth with his right hand and Kevin pulled down his pants and had sex with her. When she was on the floor, I grabbed her tits.” Since Raymond’s father and grandmother had left the precinct, only Raymond and the detectives signed the addendum. The detectives then attempted to interview Steve Lopez and they hoped to get a confession out of him since Kevin, Antron, and Raymond had already implicated Lopez in the rape. They continued pressing about the jogger, asking more questions, but Lopez would not admit to anything related to the female jogger, even as a witness. Finally, Lopez’s father, Eldomiro, told the detectives to stop and ended the interrogation.11

The officers of the 20th precinct then went to pick up Yusef and Korey to begin their interviews as well. During Yusef’s interrogation, Detective Thomas McKenna lied to Yusef, telling him that they’d found fingerprints on the jogger’s satin pants and that Yusef would be going down for rape if he didn’t  tell them what had happened. Detectives often believe that a bluff of this sort is a perfect tactic, because they are not going so far as to tell the suspect that evidence they fabricated points to them specifically, only that there might very soon be evidence against them. In theory, only a guilty person would worry; an innocent person would remain confident that any tests would exonerate them. The problem is, though, that innocent people have been known to confess, especially because they believe that a scientific test will soon exonerate them, invalidating their confession. When the promise of DNA tests or fingerprint comparisons is only a bluff, there is often no evidence to contradict the confession, or juries may believe a confession even when scientific evidence proves otherwise. McKenna’s ploy worked on Yusef. 12

Among the many new tools that science has provided for the analysis of forensic evidence is the powerful and controversial analysis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the material that makes up the genetic code of most organisms. DNA analysis, also called DNA typing or DNA profiling, examines DNA found in physical evidence and determines where it can be matched to DNA taken from specific individuals.13 Most of the biological samples collected from the crime scene, legally known as exhibits, are highly challenging to process in the forensic laboratory. Blood, blood stained objects, tissues, flesh, semen, vaginal swab from rape vicitms, hair, teeth, bone, saliva, epithelial cells, objects forcibly touched especially where body fluids/epitherlial cells are left over, bite marks on body, cigarette stubs, drinking bottles, and toothbrush are some of the frequently observed and collected exhibits during investigation of a crime scene.14

The use of DNA evidence was crucial during the Central Park jogger case | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

DNA analysis has become a common form of evidence in criminal trials. It is also used in civil litigation, particularly in cases involving the determination of paternity or identity. In DNA analysis for a criminal investigation, using highly sophisticated scientific equipment, first a DNA molecule from the suspect is disassembled, and selected segments are isolated and measured. Then the suspect’s DNA profile is compared with one derived from a sample of physical evidence to see whether the two match. If a conclusive non-match occurs, the suspect may be eliminated from consideration. If a match occurs, a statistical analysis is performed to determine the probability that the sample of physical evidence came from another person with the same DNA profile as the suspect’s. Juries use this statistical result in determining whether a suspect is guilty or innocent. No court has rejected DNA evidence on the grounds that the underlying scientific theory is invalid. However, some courts have excluded it from evidence because of problems with the possible contamination of samples, questions surrounding the significance of its statistical probabilities, and laboratory errors.15 Scholars have identified a variety of legal factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. These include eyewitness misidentification; problematic forensics (contaminated and/or mishandled evidence, insufficient technology, deteriorated evidence, and/or lack of DNA evidence); “junk science” (e.g. blood typing, fingerprint analysis, etc.); false confessions; inadequate defense counsel; police and prosecutorial misconduct; and the use of informant testimony. Wrongful convictions are almost never the product of just one of these factors, though research suggests that DNA is one of the most important tools in preventing and uncovering wrongful convictions.16 A report issued by the Justice Department in 2002 indicated that two-thirds of chief prosecutors in the United States rely on DNA testing during investigations and trials. The use of DNA evidence has exonerated at least ten individuals who were wrongly convicted of murder and faced the death penalty, whereas the sentences of more than 100 others convicted of lesser crimes were overturned based upon DNA evidence.17

Yusef never signed the statement that Detective McKenna had been writing, but in it, just like the other boys who “confessed,” Yusef described a group of kids entering the park, beating up a “bum,” seeing a couple on a tandem bike, and later beating up a male jogger in army gear near the reservoir. The statement also described a rape that took place before the assault at the reservoir. Yusef’s statement implicated himself, Kevin, and Korey as participating in the attack, though Yusef denied raping the woman. Yusef, like the others before him, described the rape as having happened near the reservoir, where the male joggers had also been harassed and assaulted, nearly seven hundred yards from where Trisha Meili had actually been attacked. Around the same time as Yusef’s interview, Korey began his in the Sex Crimes of the 20th Precinct. Unlike Yusef and other other youth, Korey was actually sixteen years old and he did not ask for a lawyer or guardian to be present, so his interrogation was conducted alone, with only the detectives in the room. In his confession, Korey admitted to having been in the park, having witnessed the attack on the “bum,” and having chased a few other joggers and bicyclists. After the statement was signed, Hartigan left and Korey remained sitting with Detective Nugent. They had a brief conversation, after which Nugent reported that Korey suddenly mentioned for the first time having witnessed the rape, admitting that he watched the attack on the female jogger from behind a tree.18

After all of the interviews and interrogations had been done, each of them had been videotaped in which they gave their confessions to the crime that had occurred. The taped confession of Korey Wise was the one that ended up tying all of the other confessions together, but all of the confessions done reflected the detectives’ influence on those interrogations. Kevin and Raymond’s statements contained words they would not have likely used and several of them reported being fed these words, as well as details about the rape that they could not have known about unless they were there or the facts were provided to them. The detectives waited until they heard what they wanted about the rape before putting pen to paper, so the statements do not reflect the repeated denials or the complete narratives of the night in the park that the teenagers gave initially but which the detectives believed. This then resulted in the arrest of Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise.19

The advertisement placed by Donald Trump in all four major NY newspapers on May 1, 1989 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The detectives investigating the Central Park Jogger rape had quickly come to a conclusion about what happened in the park that night, and they soon shared that story with the press. The rape in Central Park was a perfect story for the shocking headlines the papers craved and dozens of reporters were assigned to the case. The fundamental narrative of what had happened—and thus the conventional viewpoint shared by most inhabitants of New York—coalesced before any investigation of the forensics could take place. Once the teenagers’ statements had been made, the police were quick to report that they had found the rapists, and local and national media outlets were soon repeating verbatim the story constructed by the police.20 Many newspapers were printing out in their newspapers the severity of the crime and how brutal is was, but on May 1, less than two weeks after the attack, there was a full-page advertisement that appeared in all four of New York City’s daily papers, placed there by real estate mogul Donald Trump. He had spent $85,000 to run the ad in large capital letters, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”21 The publication of this article resulted in an uproar of protests and showed how the media began to affect the outcome of this case.

Mass media is the umbrella term used to describe the communication outlets that deliver information to a mass audience. Traditionally, these entities have included books, newspapers, magazines, telephones, motion pictures, radio, television, and cable. Currently, there is much debate regarding whether or not such new media forms like the internet, video games, and cellular phones should also be included. Regardless of the entity’s classification as traditional or new, mass media have played an integral and obvious role in the transmission and dissemination of both culture and ideology in society for nearly 200 years. As the twentieth century progressed, there was a fairly rapid increase in the consolidation of newspapers as newspaper chains published numerous individual newspapers and thus could minimize costs. Another change in newspaper production occurred in 1982, when USA Today debuted. USA Today brought splashy graphics and charts, easy-to-read stories, and color not only to its pages but also to the pages of newspapers across America that chose to imitate the USA Today style. In the 1990s, in an effort to increase a rapidly declining readership in addition to luring a much younger demographic, newspapers began to create an online presence, with websites that not only were interactive but also could be updated on a continual basis. Thus print and online media began to merge.22 There is a growing body of literature on the nexus of media, race, and crime, which reveals that crime is exaggerated in mainstream media and that these same venues tend to racialize crime and criminalize race. The impact of this is that inaccurate public perceptions about the frequency, seriousness, and demographic distribution of crime are reinforced.23

There were two trials that occurred for this case. The first trial began on June 25 and ended on August 18, 1990 in which Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana were tried first. They were each convicted of rape, assault, robbery, and riot, but acquitted of attempted murder. They were each sentenced to the maximum allowed for juveniles which was 5-10 years each in youth correctional facilities. The second trial began on October 22, 1990 and also lasted about two months, ending on December 11, 1990 in which Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson were tried.  Kevin was convicted on every count including attempted murder, rape, and sodomy, and was given 5-10 years in a juvenile facility. Korey Wise was only convicted of first-degree assault, sexual abuse, and riot, and was acquitted on the charges of rape and attempted murder. Due to him being sixteen years old though, he received 5-15 years in adult prison.24

However, the Central Park Five were later exonerated in a court trial in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist serving life in prison, confessed to officials in 2001 that he had been the one that raped the jogger. His DNA matched what had been found at the scene and he provided other evidence that confirmed that he had done it. Reyes, however, could not be prosecuted for raping the jogger because the statute of limitations had passed. The Central Park Five had all of their charges vacated and later on sued the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, and each received settlements for all of the years they had spent in prison despite the police and prosecutors of the original case insisting that the five men had still been involved. Each member of the Central Park Five now happily live their lives with their spouses and children and continue to advocate for reform in the criminal justice system, and some closely work with the Innocence Project to work with those that have also been wrongly accused of crimes they had never committed.25

The Central Park Five after being exonerated from prison in 2002 | Courtesy of history.com
  1. Natalie P. Byfield, Savage Portrayals: Race, Media & the Central Park Jogger Story (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2014), 1.
  2. Encyclopedia of Race and Crime, 2009, s.v. “Central Park Jogger,” by Monica Erling.
  3. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 32.
  4. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 38.
  5. Natalie P. Byfield, Savage Portrayals: Race, Media & the Central Park Jogger Story (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2014), 7.
  6. Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology, 2006, s.v. “Racism and Discrimination,” by Shelly P. Harrell and Gesenia Sloan-Pena.
  7. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, 2013, s.v. “Racism: Color Blind,” by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Michelle Christian.
  8. Natalie P. Byfield, Savage Portrayals: Race, Media & the Central Park Jogger Story (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2014), 8.
  9. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 40-42.
  10. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 42-43.
  11. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 43-45.
  12. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 46-47.
  13. Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 2010, s.v. “DNA Evidence.”
  14. Ajay Kumar Rana, “Crime investigation through DNA methylation analysis: methods and applications in forensics,” Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences 8, no. 7 (2018): 3.
  15. Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 2010, s.v. “DNA Evidence.”
  16. Maeve Olney and Scott Bonn, “An Exploratory Study of the Legal and Non-Legal Factors Associated with Exoneration for Wrongful Conviction: The Power of DNA Evidence,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 26, no. 4 (2015): 403.
  17. Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 2010, s.v. “DNA Evidence.”
  18. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 47-48.
  19. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 48-65.
  20. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 66-72.
  21. David Graham, Adrienne Green, Cullen Murphy, Parker Richards, “An Oral History of Trump’s Bigotry,” Atlantic Media Company, June 2019.
  22. Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, 2012, s.v. “Mass Media,” by Mary Alice Adams.
  23. Aziz Douai and Barbara Perry, “A Different Lens? How Ethnic Minority Media Cover Crime,” Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice 60, no. 1 (2018): 96.
  24. New York v. Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, 4762 U.S. 1 (1989).
  25. Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (New York, New York: Random House, 2011), 184-212.

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62 Responses

  1. Nice article! It is clear to understand the format of DNA testing in criminals aspects that can help to clarify the truth of the situation to bring justice for the victim. The reasons for racism are really nonsense, people who use these reasons just as an excuse for their “superiority” and the beastliness that want to crush the others only to satisfy their cruelty.

  2. This was such a great read! I watched this documentary when it first came out on Netflix and it was so sad to learn about how the justice system completely failed and worked against these young men. It is even more unfortunate to know that this story would have resulted much differently if the boys had not been targeted for their color. To think that a large part of their life was taken away by being wrongfully convicted, and lied to with promises of being freed, is tragic. This happens far more than we know in the United States and is a flaw in the justice system that must be fixed. Great article and topic!

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