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Every now and again, we get a look, usually no more than a glimpse, at how the justice system really works. What we see-before the sanitizing curtain is drawn abruptly down-is a process full of human fallibility and error, sometimes noble, more often unfair, rarely evil but frequently unequal, and through it all inevitably influenced by issues of race and class and economic status. In short, it's a lot like other big, unwieldy institutions. Such a moment of clear sight emerges from the mess we know as the case of the Central Park jogger.
“..they should be executed”
-- Donald Trump
She was horribly beaten and raped and left near death on an April night 13 years ago. Five Harlem teenagers who were part of a "wilding" spree by more than 30 youths in Central Park that night were accused of the rape. Other charges included sexual abuse, assault, riot, and robbery. Under intense questioning, they at first confessed, in written statements and on videotape, but shortly thereafter retracted everything - contending that they had been intimidated, lied to, and coerced into making the statements. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime-no blood match, no semen match, nothing. The victim could not provide an identification of any assailant because the battering left her with no memory whatever of the episode or even of starting out on her jog. But in two court trials a year later, the juries were persuaded by the vivid confessions that each of the five had at least some role in the attack on the young woman. Four-because they were under 16-were sentenced under juvenile guidelines and served jail terms of five to 10 years. The fifth, Kharey Wise, who was 16 and thus classed as an adult, got a sentence of five to 15 years. He came out of prison just last August.
Linda Fairstein, who controlled the case as head of the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, says now: "I don't think there was any rush to judgment." Perhaps. But there certainly was a rush.
Sometime last winter a serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes, who is serving a 33⅓-to-life sentence in state prison, sought out the authorities, told them religion had entered his life, and confessed that he and he alone had brutalized and raped the jogger. His DNA, it was soon learned, matched that of the semen found in the jogger's cervix and on one of her running socks.
The public wasn't told any of this for several months as the shocked "justice system" wrestled with the gargantuan problem.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whose office prosecuted the case, began an investigation. It was not as hurried as the first one. Nor were as many detectives assigned to it. Despite the new evidence, the police department, whose leadership is reported to believe still that the five teenagers had at least some connection to the rape, recently started its own investigation. Morgenthau has a court date of December 5 to deliver his recommendations on whether the convictions should be vacated. Unseen backstage, the two assistant district attorneys in charge of Morgenthau's reinvestigation, Nancy Ryan and Peter Casolaro, are said to be under heavy lobbying from the players who produced those convictions. It's now a tug-of-war between a fair decision and one that would try to protect some carefully crafted reputations.
State law would seem to favor the five convicted youths. New York's Criminal Procedure Law-Section 440.10 (1) (g)-states that if "new evidence" is produced that probably would have affected the original verdicts, then a court may "vacate" the convictions. There is no requirement for the court to rule that the confessions were coerced.
OFFSITE: The False Confessions in the Central Park Jogger Case:
How they happened, and how to stop similar injustices from happening again
By ELAINE CASSEL
Back in 1989, the atmosphere surrounding this crime was, modestly put, emotional. The city was crackling with racial aggravation. And the mayoral campaign had begun-David Dinkins, who is black, would be opposing Rudolph Giuliani, who was already showing his disdain for many in the black leadership.
And then, on the night of April 19, in the city's premier greensward, a white, 28-year-old honors graduate from Wellesley and Yale, a rising star at Salomon Brothers investment bank, was allegedly raped by a group of black and Latino youths who, the authorities said, had thrown her to the ground, stripped her of her clothes, and, as she struggled desperately, bashed her all over her body with a rock and other objects to stop her flailing. Her left eye socket was crushed and her skull broken through to the brain. She lost 80 percent of her blood. The doctors at Metropolitan Hospital, who initially told police her chances to live were almost nil, saved her.
Press coverage was wall-to-wall. The rape wasn't the only crime committed in the same area that night. During the roving band's hour or two in the park, a number of cyclists and pedestrians and joggers had also been assaulted. Two of them, both men, were beaten into the dirt and, like the jogger, left in pools of blood. In such crimes, given the media attention and the potential for community anxiety and even unrest, pressure on police and prosecutors is immense. The unwritten edict from on high is: Solve this case instantly and put the perpetrators behind bars. In less than 48 hours, the police had rounded up a dozen or so suspects and reported that a few had already confessed.
A week later, with five youths of color charged, Donald Trump, a loud real estate developer and casino operator whose kinship with either truth or justice has never been obvious, took out a full-page ad in each of the city's four daily papers urging New Yorkers to ignore those like Mayor Koch and Cardinal O'Connor who had counseled against "hate and rancor." Of the accused, he wrote: "I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed. . . . I am looking to punish them. . . . I want them to be afraid."
Ugliness was in the air.
Linda Fairstein, who controlled the case as head of the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, says now: "I don't think there was any rush to judgment." Perhaps. But there certainly was a rush.
So intense was the push for confessions that Fairstein, who had sought and achieved celebrity from her sex-crime prosecutions, bullied and stalled and blocked the mother and two friends of one suspect, Yusef Salaam, from gaining access to him. Fairstein's apparent purpose was to keep the suspect under wraps because she had been informed by the interrogating detective that the questioning was in a delicate phase where Salaam had begun to make some admissions. A short while later, Fairstein realized she could not bar the mother any longer, and the angry parent halted the interrogation.
Thus, unlike the four others charged with the rape, Salaam had not signed any written statement nor given a videotaped confession. The prosecution's only evidence of what he said at his interrogation came from the detective, Thomas McKenna, who testified at Salaam's trial a year later. (The case was split into two trials, with three of the defendants grouped in the first one-Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Raymond Santana, 14-and the remaining two accused-Kevin Richardson, 14, and Kharey Wise, 16-in the second. These groupings were largely maneuvered by the prosecution so as to get information to the juries in the order the D.A.'s office preferred. Both trials were held in 1990 and both lasted two months.)
On the stand, McKenna, a detective for 20 years, openly acknowledged that he had used a ruse on the night after the rape to get Salaam's "confession." The boy, McKenna said, at first repeatedly denied having been in Central Park. Then, went McKenna's testimony, he, the detective, made the following untrue statement to Salaam: "Look, I don't care if you tell me anything. I don't care what you say to me. We have fingerprints on the jogger's pants. They're satin, they're a very smooth surface, and we have been able to get fingerprints off of them. I'm just going to compare your prints to the prints we have on the pants, and if they match up, you don't have to tell me anything. Because you're going down for rape."
At this, according to McKenna's testimony, Salaam blurted, "I was there but I didn't rape her." And then, said McKenna, the boy calmly proceeded to admit that he had hit the downed jogger twice with an iron bar and felt her breasts, but said it was four other boys who actually "fucked her." Salaam identified two of them, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise, McKenna testified. He said he didn't know the other two.
There never were, of course, any fingerprints on the jogger's running pants.
As described by McKenna, his trick-playing on Salaam is, under present case law, quite legal. As are many other kinds of law enforcement distortions, misdirections, and veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) suggestions that leniency will be granted if the witness is forthcoming. The justice system's premise for accepting these stratagems is that an innocent person will not falsely incriminate himself.
After the trial, some jurors said the detective had gained credibility with them by being so candid about his methods.
Probably the most blatant example of the prosecution's contortions under pressure had to do with distorting the meaning of critical evidence-the DNA. To wit, the D.A.'s office all along, right up to the first trial in 1990, had told the press, and therefore the public, that the DNA results were "inconclusive" because they showed only a "weak" or "faint" pattern-leaving the impression that, while there was no match, the samples likely did belong to one or more of the indicted five, but were merely of poor quality. In fact, the semen samples taken from the victim were absolutely conclusive in ways important to the defense.
The prosecution never did reveal the true DNA results and analysis. The FBI did-at the first trial, more than a year after the crime. The disclosure was made by the witness from the FBI laboratory, Special Agent Dwight Adams. And it didn't come in his direct testimony as a witness for the prosecution, because Assistant D.A. Elizabeth Lederer avoided any question to him that might lead to the whole truth. However, Adams told the story openly, with no reluctance, in his cross-examination by defense attorney Mickey Joseph.
Adams's testimony was a major departure from the line the prosecution had spun. Answering Joseph's questions, the FBI expert said that while there was no DNA match with the blood samples from any of the defendants or possible suspects in the wilding, or the sample from the jogger's boyfriend, some firm conclusions could be made. True, there was no match, Adams said, but all 14 of the DNA samples could be excluded as belonging to the person or persons who penetrated the victim in Central Park that night. Answering Joseph's questions matter-of-factly, the FBI expert explained that in DNA testing, it is easier to exclude than to match. He said the weak pattern obtained from the cervix and the stronger pattern found on the sock, though not as complete as needed for a match, were nonetheless clear and strong enough to determine that they definitely did not belong to any of the 14 people whose blood was tested.
The prosecution had known all along that the tests were not "inconclusive." They knew the results proved that the semen could not have come from any of the five defendants. And yet the prosecution stayed mute.
Adams revealed one more thing on the stand that the prosecution had never told the public: The FBI lab had compared the semen from the cervix and the semen from the sock-and they were from the same person. "They seemed to match," he said clearly.
In hindsight, the FBI disclosures should have exploded a bomb in the heart of the prosecution case. But the testimony set off no fireworks. The disturbing confessions were what had captured the minds of the jury-and the press.
What Adams's testimony meant was that only one person, still at large, had ejaculated inside the victim- while keeping in mind that since some rapists are not able to function sexually during the attack, the possibility that both Reyes and a temporarily impotent group assaulted her cannot be absolutely ruled out. (The police have lately been searching for possible evidence of a link between Reyes and the five who were convicted.)
But the theory of the crime that the hard, forensic evidence most supports is that the group of five, or some of them, took no part, or no significant part, in the sexual assault. This raises the further possibility or likelihood, as counter-intuitive as this may seem given the confessions, that the five defendants were indeed "coerced" as the law defines the word-which would support their charges that they were intimidated, fed details about the rape, told that their friends had informed on them, and prodded with subtle hints that if they confessed about the others they would help themselves.
Penetration of the victim is a corollary legal issue here. Under the law, penetration is necessary before the crime of sexual assault rises to that of rape. In the case of a group of attackers, penetration by only one person (though, again, not necessarily ejaculation) is enough to implicate the rest of a group in a rape. Otherwise, in this case, the five could only be charged with other crimes committed during the wilding. The indictments did charge them with several other crimes, such as assault, robbery, and riot, but the pivot of the prosecution's case-and the primary focus-was always the rape.
At the same time, it is important to remember, in any examination of the public record of this flawed investigation and prosecution, that even if these five youths, or at least some of them, were not guilty of rape or sexual assault, they were not innocents-having been convicted of a whole series of other crimes committed in the rampage that night. One need only recall that among those crimes, two men, John Loughlin and Antonio Diaz, were horribly beaten and left bleeding and unconscious.
Timothy Sullivan, then the editor of Manhattan Lawyer and now news editor of the Courtroom Television Network, wrote a book in 1992 titled Unequal Verdicts, the most authoritative account of the trials and the case as it stood at that point.
Sullivan's book provides most of the now-forgotten details, and he goes behind the scenes a lot. He recounts several instances where the pressure and urgency felt by the prosecution showed through. Here are two of them.
(1) Sullivan writes that Elizabeth Lederer, a respected Assistant District Attorney whom Linda Fairstein had named as lead attorney for the trials, was fully aware of all the pieces the prosecution was missing, one of which was proof or a statement that penetration had taken place. The following excerpt shows some of Lederer's questioning of Raymond Santana on videotape. Santana has told her that Kevin Richardson, 14, was the only one he had seen "having sex" with the victim.
"Did he penetrate her?" she asked, referring to Richardson. "Did he put his penis inside of her?" "Um hmm," he confirmed. "Did he say that he had?" "No, he didn't say it." Santana scoffed. "But you could tell?" "Yeah." "How could you tell?" "Because he was havin' sex with her! That's what you're supposed to do when you havin' sex!"
Lederer persisted. "Well, when he was doing that, was he moving up and down?"
"Yeah," Santana replied and, rather than wait for her to ask again how he could tell, added: " 'Cause I seen it."
"And so you could see that he was moving," said Lederer, "thrusting up and down . . . thrusting into her?" "Yeah," said Santana. "That's how I knew he was havin' sex with her."
What leaps out from this interview is how Lederer, very frustrated, lapses into badgering to try to drag the information she needs out of him. Equally revealing is that Santana never actually says he saw Richardson's penis inside the victim.
(2) In late November 1990, on the ninth day of deliberations in the second trial-of the two remaining defendants, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise-the press and players anxiously awaited the verdict (which didn't come until December 11).
"If we don't get a rape conviction," said Detective McKenna, "we lost the case." A reporter asked whether a conviction on attempted murder, technically a higher count, would not be considered a victory. No, said McKenna, it had to be a rape conviction. [Detective John] Taglioni nodded in agreement.
Today, none of the players are talking. The D.A.'s office says that the judge handling the reopening of the case, State Supreme Court Justice Charles Tejada, has asked them to make no further public comments until the December 5 hearing before him, when Morgenthau will produce his report and make his recommendations.
One central unanswered question about the rape case falls completely on Morgenthau's office. Why didn't he and his people-when they received the FBI's final DNA results, just before the first of the two trials-ask the judge for a postponement? They could simply have told him they needed more time to identify and arrest the missing man they had now determined, from the semen tests, had penetrated the victim. The judge may have been annoyed with them and chewed on them a bit, but he would almost certainly have recognized the legitimacy of their request and granted it.
Matias Reyes has now confessed to being that missing man, and his DNA shows him to be right. He has also confessed to the rape and beating of another woman two days earlier-on April 17, 1989-in the same northern quadrant of the park. The authorities reportedly have tied Reyes to that April 17 rape as well.
Why, back in 1989, didn't the authorities look into a possible link between the April 17 and April 19 rapes? If they had, the April 17 victim, a 26-year-old woman who had full memory of the assault, could possibly have identified her attacker early on or provided other critical information.
Was it simply human oversight, to which we are all susceptible, or were they in too much of a hurry? Or was the D.A.'s office actually aware of the April 17 rape, which happened in daylight, and simply dismissed it as different in pattern?
In any event, the prosecutors cannot argue it wasn't right in front of their collective noses. On April 29, 1989, 10 days after the jogger rape, The New York Times ran a long story about the 28 other first-degree rapes or attempted rapes reported across New York City during the week of the Central Park crime. Fourth on the list was the following entry for April 17, now tied to Reyes.
3:30 P.M. As she walked through the northern reaches of Central Park on the East Side, a woman, 26, was hit in the face, robbed and raped. The suspect escaped.
It's not uncommon for criminal cases to have a few unknown elements, inconsistencies, or gray areas. But the jogger case was shot through with them. Portions of the defendants' statements, for example, were flat-out contradictions of the accounts given by their co-defendants.
If the authorities had just paused somewhere along the way and expanded the investigation to deal with some of these gaps, the case would likely have been turned upside down. What really explains the failure to delay the trials? Was it the pressure for quick results? Or the public embarrassment of having to admit gray areas and missing pieces after going too far? Whatever the explanation, the failure to pursue the loose ends surely altered the outcome.
Now there will be a second outcome. And a number of human dramas are playing out in the background.
The five convicted youths, now in their late twenties, and their families are obviously hoping their rape convictions will be set aside. They want to remove the stigma of being listed as sex criminals in the government registry and being required to report their whereabouts to the authorities every three months. They're surely also hoping their convictions on all the other charges-assault, robbery, attempted murder, and riot-will be vacated as well. City officials are bracing for huge damage suits should any of the counts be overturned. It bears repeating that, even if the five are found not guilty of involvement in the rape, we may never know the full story of what happened that night. It's not likely we'll hear any more confessions from the young men or any admissions of wrongdoing from the players on the prosecution side.
The rape victim has said that though she has no memory of the awful attack, she would like to know who did this to her. Her wish for all the answers may not be granted, either. She fought her way back from near-death to resume her post at Salomon Brothers, more quickly than anyone predicted. She's not the same, though, and won't be. She suffers from double vision and is wobbly on her feet. She has a hard time walking in a straight line. Of late, she is said to be writing a memoir.
Linda Fairstein, a fiercely competitive, driven professional who was 41 at the time of the jogger rape, has since left the D.A.'s office to write novels about an assistant district attorney who prosecutes sex crimes. When the rape occurred, she raced into the fray to wrest the case away from Nancy Ryan, 39, another upward A.D.A. who was Fairstein's chief rival in the Morgenthau constellation. Now, Morgenthau has put Ryan in charge of his reinvestigation of the case. Those who know Fairstein say she harbors a dream of succeeding Morgenthau as Manhattan D.A. The latest developments could wreck that dream.
Nancy Ryan is said to be under lobbying siege now from police and prosecutors, former and current, who believe her report will call for the rape verdicts to be vacated. With their reputations at stake, they're trying to talk her into a less drastic decision. Fairstein is reported to be lobbying Morgenthau. If it all weren't so real, it would be a soap opera.
Robert Morgenthau, it is fair to say, is a haloed icon in the New York establishment. At 83, he has probably spent more years in public service here than any other active government official. For the past 28 years (he began his eighth consecutive term in January), he has been the Manhattan D.A. Some admirers call him "America's D.A." He has been an advocate for good government and has lent his name and time to many worthy causes. That said, he is, like all the other players in this story, a mortal being, not a deity. Like any D.A., he has in his time covered up lots of his office's mistakes. Like other big-city D.A.'s, he has also swept under a large carpet the misdeeds of myriad well-known personages. They owe him. Not long ago, his office buried an investigation into Charles Gargano, the state's economic czar, who has a recurring habit of giving big state contracts to people who make big campaign contributions to his friend Governor George Pataki. Some Morgenthau watchers think that he may have been too long with power and that with age, he may have lost his touch.
People sometimes use the phrase "the game" to describe how big systems like government and multinational corporations often get manipulated not for the common good but for the good of the people who run them. It's not a description of evil, but rather of human nature. It explains what happens when individuals have been doing things a certain way for a long time and come to believe this is always the right way. One symptom is when a player begins to focus only on winning, on trouncing the opposing side. Another is when people become so habit-formed and sure of themselves that they stop asking the question: "Could I possibly be wrong about this?"
The story of the Central Park jogger case may be in large part a story about people in the justice system playing the game-when they should have been doing the right thing.
Kevin Richardson is guarded but hopeful as he sits down with a reporter from The Village Voice. He is among the young men dubbed the "Central Park Five," a moniker that evokes a connection to the political trials of the black liberation movement, a far cry from the beastly and lasting labels with which he was plastered in 1989. The emotional scars from that time bear heavily on his relationship to the press. He has only recently begun to read stories other than the sports section.
"This is like my first interview and I'm really reluctant," says Richardson, now 28. "I really don't trust reporters at all. It's taken me a while to really get used to people. I want to reach out to supporters I think are true and will really give the right word out because we've been tricked so much."
Thirteen years ago, it was the media that initially clued Richardson to the enormity of his situation. "When we [were arrested], we didn't know how big this was," says Richardson. "We didn't realize it until we went from precinct to precinct and we had to walk outside. There were all of these lights outside. Media frenzy. I was like, what is going on? We still didn't know, and our families didn't know yet, but they [the press] did."
Since then, despite their steadfast declarations of innocence and contentions that their "confessions" were coerced, life for the Central Park Five and their families has often been an extension of that first "perp" walk. Earlier this year, when they learned-once more through the media-of Matias Reyes's confession to being the sole attacker of the Central Park jogger, and the DNA evidence linking him to the crime, the bright lights of cameras came on all over again.
"It's hard to deal with it again, even though this is for a whole different case," Richardson says. "I still get a little uptight. It seems like every time they show us [in the press], it's the confession tapes, that's it. Sometimes [even if] that's not what the article's about, they'll show that. In the back of my mind, you know, it's like, I did time for something that I didn't do, and it happened so long ago that I was adjusting to society. But at the same time, every day I was thinking about what I went through, and that I'm still convicted, a convicted rapist. It's hard," Richardson says. He reports he finds it extremely difficult to look at the tapes. He cannot reconcile the youth in those sensationalized sound bites with the boy he was or the man he has become.
"It has opened some old wounds," says Yusef Salaam, another of the convicted young men, now 29. "In the back of your mind, you're saying, 'I kind of wish that this was all over and I can just get on with my life.' But at the same time you're looking at the situation and saying, 'This is a really good thing because now I have a chance and an opportunity that a lot of people don't have.' There's many people that I've met in prison that have said that they were innocent, but a lot of people don't have the chance where someone is coming forth and saying, 'Yo, these guys actually are innocent because I did it.' "
In 1997, when Salaam and Richardson came out of prison, they were released to a new set of difficulties. "I was just so scared," says Richardson. "I was happy to be home, but I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how people were going to embrace me. I knew the community was there for me, but I really didn't know what to expect." Apart from his family, Richardson was not always sure of who really had his back. "There's a lot of people that were a little phony. When I walked down the street, you never knew who was your real friend. You walk away, they may talk behind your back-'That's that guy who did that rape.' "
Salaam relates a similar experience of fear. "You always have that in the back of your mind," he says. "That you were in prison, and you kind of fear that because you got put into prison for something that you didn't do that it could happen again."
Longtime adviser and family spokesperson City Councilman Bill Perkins says others in the group have also had this distrust in their readjustment. One of them exhibits a paranoia of sorts due to the crisis he has faced. "There was a recent incident in the neighborhood concerning a rape," says Perkins. "And he was scared that he would be the one blamed."
The 12 years between their convictions and Reyes's revelations have been, in Salaam's words, "a nightmare." "You wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. I know people who do crime, they need to do the time, but if someone is innocent, this is not something that you would want them to go through at all. There were times when I really thought I wasn't coming home. Something could be going on in the yard, somebody might be getting knifed, or something like that. You're kind of like looking around saying, 'Are they just having a distraction going on over there so they can get me?' People really want to hurt you because they think that you did a heinous crime.
"Sometimes I don't think about this [case]." I have it in my mind but I move on because I just don't think about a lot of the grim facts and the rough times. Even times when, you know-they say men cry in prison when the lights are off-I don't think about those times because if I [did] I might be a guy who goes crazy."
Salaam and Richardson share stories of lost economic opportunities, and the stigma of having to register as sex offenders under Megan's Law, for this now disputed crime.
"I put in for [a job at] the post office," says Richardson. "I told the truth and I put down that I was convicted. I swear I had the job already, but then after that it seemed like they just totally pushed me off. I was qualified and everything and that crushed me for a minute. They never looked at what I could do, at my qualities and what kind of worker I would be, but they knew that I was Kevin Richardson."
And their names were still newsworthy. "When I first came home," says Salaam, "I was actually working for a construction company. At one point, I had wanted to go back to school, and I told my boss. He said OK, 'I'll see you,' and maybe a day or two later an article ran in the Daily News stating that he fired me."
"I've had a lot of difficulties in securing work," says Salaam. "For the most part people usually say, 'Hey, OK, I appreciate you being honest with me. I see that you've served time.' I always put down that I served time for a crime that I didn't commit. And it always shifts to, 'What were you in prison for?' When they find out, I never get the job."
"I'm working now," says Richardson. "In the beginning I was kind of nervous because it was a good job, and I didn't want to lose it. I didn't know what people would think when they knew it was me. I keep my circle of friends real little. Now, I find more people coming to me, and I don't know if they are genuine or not. It's like they want to jump on the bandwagon a little bit. [The case] made me lose friends, and actually, I think it's better that way for me. I'd rather kind of keep to myself and my family."
"I had gotten out on bail [before the trial]" says Salaam. "I remember a black older woman coming up to me around where my mom lives, and she says: 'Why did you do that to that lady in the park?' And I was like-I mean, it was a black woman-I just felt so bad. I was like, 'I didn't do it,' you know? And there was nothing I could say to this woman to convince her that I didn't do this crime."
Both Salaam and Richardson credit their families with insuring that they were able to cope with the circumstances to which they were subjected. "They did the time with me because they were always there," says Richardson. "The C.O.s [corrections officers], when they see that, they won't mess with you too much. When you don't have anybody, you can get lost in the system."
Although Salaam had the support of the prison Islamic community and served as the spiritual leader at his youth facility, he agrees that family is the greatest support. "There were times [during visits] when I would look over at my mom and I'm like, man, she looks so tired. I was about five miles from Canada and we lived in New York City. It's a very long trip and she would come three times a week.
"One thing that time does, especially when you come home and you have a family and loved ones, that kind of puts a bandage on the wound so it becomes a little easier to breathe, because you know at least that you have your family and friends in your corner."
According to their accounts, the dilemma has strengthened their spirituality and made them stronger people, although for Richardson it seems impossible to look at the world the way he did before the ordeal.
"When you go before the parole board, you're supposed to show remorse for what you did, but how can I do that if I didn't do anything?" says Richardson.
"I think that especially with crimes like the Central Park jogger case, a lot of cases like that are won and lost in the media before they reach the courtroom, but at the same time, I don't feel as bad as most people would," says Salaam. "I don't point the finger like that. For one thing, I look at it and I say to myself, 'These people are just reporting information that they have gathered from another source and they may have been gathering information from a source that tainted the information."
Richardson and Salaam were both able to obtain associate degrees-in liberal arts and applied sciences respectively-while in prison. Salaam, now married with two young children, is studying business with plans of starting his own company. Both look forward to the December 5 court date that will decide whether or not, with Reyes's admission and his confirmed DNA link to the jogger attack, any and all tainted information will disappear.
"There are a lot of people that's realizing what's really going on, and they're becoming more aware, and now they're dealing with logic, and if they had really paid attention from the beginning, they would've known," says Richardson. "From the beginning, all we wanted was justice, and we never got the chance," he says. "I want justice to be done. That's my main focus. I don't care about anything else right now."
It was barely dawn, Friday, April 21, 1989, not 12 hours after her 15-year-old son Yusef had been picked up by police at her door while she was at work, when Sharonne Salaam turned on the TV and heard the latest about a woman who had been brutally raped and nearly murdered in Central Park two nights before. "What a disgrace," she recalls thinking. But she couldn't dwell on it, because her adolescent son-who had never dealt with the law-was being held for jumping joggers and bicyclists in the park. She was anxious to "make things right for Yusef." The only thing that was clear to her was that her son had said he was innocent and she believed him.
Salaam and two friends, one a Brooklyn assistant district attorney, had spent all night wrangling with officials for a chance to see him. She was allowed only a few minutes to impart as much motherly advice as possible before she was forced out. She then dashed home to talk with a lawyer. She had no clue Yusef was being held in connection with the barbaric rape.
Soon after she got home, her attorney called and said to meet him at the police station pronto. That morning, as he prepared to check on what he thought were assault charges against Yusef, he saw on the TV that a group of teens from Schomburg Plaza-Salaam's building-were being held for the rape.
By that time, just two days after the attack, it was already too late for Yusef and four other boys who were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to spend five to 10 years in prison. Three of the five accused, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Kevin Richardson, had confessed in writing after what they later said was intense interrogation that intimidated them into spinning stories about each other in hopes of being sent home.
Given warnings from his mother to let the cops "crush his hands" before they made him sign anything, Yusef had not agreed to a signed confession, but he allegedly said enough for Detective Thomas McKenna to take notes that would later be used against him in court. Then Kharey Wise gave two confessions following nine hours of questioning.
With no DNA evidence linking any of the boys to the crime and the jogger having lost her memory from the beating, all five were convicted on those statements and the videotaped confessions that followed. The NYPD sex crimes unit maintains that the accused willingly gave the confessions.
"They were coming to us telling us they knew Kevin was a good boy and if he told us about the others, he would have a better chance," says Crystal Cuffee, Richardson's sister. "I am sure they were telling them [the teens] the same thing."
That morning in 1989 wouldn't be the only time the parents of the Central Park Five would learn the apparent fate of their sons from the media. Thirteen years after the teens were arrested and a few years since they completed their prison terms, it was by television that Grace Cuffee, the mother of Kevin Richardson, learned that imprisoned rapist Matias Reyes had confessed to the crime. "No one got a call from the D.A.'s office," says Crystal Cuffee with a wry laugh.
Even now, while the D.A.'s office is reinvestigating the case, in what many say is an attempt to somehow link the five to the crime that Reyes insists he committed alone, there have been no calls or further interviews by prosecutors, no updates. There have been leaks to papers, some saying this crime could not have been committed by one person.
Being shafted by the D.A.'s office does not exactly shock Salaam, the Cuffees, or Delores Wise, the mother of Kharey Wise. From the minute their boys were arrested in 1989, the families say, they were kept out of the loop by officials, stormed by the press, ignored by advocacy groups and local churches, and even shunned by many of their neighbors.
"Nobody believes us. They didn't then and they don't now," says Wise in a brief interview in which she is so agitated she can barely sit still. Her voice is hoarse after hours of mulling over the facts of her son's situation for the umpteenth time. "We can't go through this again," she said. "It's like it's all coming back."
While the teens were shuffled between dozens of lineups and a handful of precincts during the two days of intense interrogations, the D.A.'s office, it seems, never stopped to take a snapshot of the families' lives before they were sent into the whirlwind. Salaam and Crystal Cuffee say there were no questions asked about the young men's lives. There was no talk of how Richardson was one boy among four sisters and was considered "the man of the family." No one asked Sharonne Salaam about her background or their home life. The media painted a picture of thugs from a rough side of town-though Schomburg Plaza is more middle-class hamlet than hardcore project.
The sure look of Zen in Sharonne's eyes is profoundly stirring, considering her experience. "My child was raised behind barbed wire," she said. "And when one person is imprisoned, his whole family is in prison." Crystal Cuffee remembers all the holidays she spent at prison and life lived in spurts between trial and appeals. Salaam says it was like a pit that gets deeper each time you think it could get better.
Yet it could have been worse. Sharonne was teaching a class at Parsons School of Design the night of April 20 when police came to her home for Yusef, who wasn't there. Her 16-year-old daughter and her younger son, 13, went to the door. One of the officers asked the younger brother his name and then checked for it on a "master list" of suspects, says Sharonne. "They were ready to take him."
Just then Yusef walked up, and the cops "invited" him to the station; he wasn't old enough for forced questioning without a parent. Kharey Wise happened to be with Yusef. Though Wise was not on the list, they also "invited" him to the precinct, she says. Most of their neighbors agree that it didn't take much more than being an African American or Latino teen to get picked up during the "sweep" in the Schomburg area that resulted in more than 30 arrests in two days.
Not in the sweep, Richardson and Santana had been stopped walking by the park at 10:15 p.m. the night of the attack, several hours before police knew of the rape. They were taken in for suspicion of assaulting other joggers. It wasn't until about 4 a.m. that prosecutors linked them to the rape, and even later before Richardson's family knew of the charge, says Crystal Cuffee.
A core group of people in the Harlem community came out in support of the youth, but many either denounced the boys or simply stayed away. Salaam and Cuffee remember the few churches that helped, and that Reverend Al Sharpton came out on McCray's behalf. Salaam says that parents from her building would cross the street when they saw her coming. She suspects that many knew it could have been their own boys, but felt a need to "show white people" that the black community would not put up with rapists. Others who believed the boys were innocent and may even have had information simply didn't come forward out of fear, she says.
For Salaam, it was getting to work helping other kids like Yusef that pulled her from the "bottomless pit." Not long after Yusef's conviction, Sharonne and some of her core supporters founded People United for Children, which works to improve conditions for incarcerated children and minors who are stuck in other parts of the system.
"I remember this woman came to me and gave me a $5 bill and said, 'I am going to give you money from my check each week.' " Salaam says it was a sign that she should go ahead.
But they do all have physical signs of the stress. On a recent evening when all of the mothers were to meet for an interview, Grace Cuffee was in an emergency room with complications from high blood pressure and diabetes. Wise almost didn't come, but later turned up, saying she had been "pinned to the couch for a week" since the D.A.'s office had been given an extension for the reinvestigation. Salaam's whole family suffers migraines.
Salaam and Cuffee both say they are hoping that ultimately the convictions will be overturned and that the young men's criminal records will be expunged. Salaam says it is crucial that all fingerprints, photos, and DNA be removed from police and FBI files and that Yusef's name be removed from the New York sexual predator database. Try getting and keeping a job when you are labeled a sexual predator, she says. Beyond that, Salaam feels she is still helping her son readjust from what she calls the "different" mentality of prison.