Proven innocent in New York
By: Chris Demers
The five people accused and sentenced as teenagers for the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park had their convictions dismissed by a judge in late December. The dismissal came after a convicted rapist confessed to the crime last January, and DNA tests several months later proved “beyond question” that individual’s guilt.
The wrongly convicted teens were all African Americans and Latinos whose actions were described at the time by the press as a night of “wilding.” The highly critical news coverage led to increased racial tension in New York City and public outcry for their conviction.
The uproar included renewed calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York, culminating in tycoon Donald Trump running full-page ads in major newspapers pointing to the Central Park case as the reason to reinstate the death penalty.
Though originally coerced by police into confessing to the crimes, the falsely accused teens always professed their innocence for the crime while in prison–an act which consistently cost them their chances at parole because the state maintained they were not “showing remorse” for the crime. The five all served their full prison term.
After the real rapist came forward, those who prosecuted the original case attempted unsuccessfully to link the wrongly accused five to him, going so far as to search photos at the homes of the falsely accused in the hopes of finding proof of a connection. Prosecutors eventually backtracked and supported the dismissal of the convictions.
The only physical evidence that tied the five to the crime were hair samples found on two of the suspects that closely matched the victim. Technology available at the time of the trial could only certify that the hairs were “consistent” with those of the victim and couldn’t show that they were a “match.” Nonetheless, the five were convicted based on this unreliable evidence.
For all five men–Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise–the stigma of “rapist” has followed them throughout their life after prison. Each one says that this has cost them jobs and other opportunities.
The death penalty was reinstated in New York in 1995, partly because the public was scared into believing it could curb crimes like the Central Park jogger case, though no evidence supports this assumption. The New York Court of Appeals recently vacated the sentence of the first person sentenced to New York’s new death row, Darrel Harris, whose sentence was found unconstitutional because it w! as handed down while invalid plea-bargaining laws were still in use.