Santana, Richardson, Salaam, and Clay. Photo: Black Star News
Listening to one of the men who served a long prison sentence for a false conviction, at least one reporter was seen wiping away tears during an emotional press conference this morning when some of the Central Park 5 men spoke publicly for the first time since the $41 million settlement with New York City was announced.
The men thanked their lawyers, family members, politicians and activists who supported them since they were first arrested in 1989 and wrongfully charged with a vicious rape and beating of a White woman in Central Park.
Yusuf Abdus Salaam, in scholarly comments and responses to questions from reporters, said he plans to continue to work even after the settlement is finalized within the next two to three weeks when Judge Deborah Batts in the U.S. District Court is expected to sign off on the deal.
Salaam and the two others who appeared, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, all said they were only able to endure the ordeal — the arrest, the trial, the demonization in tabloid media and by Donald Trump who placed an ad calling for their execution, and the long years in prison — through the support of family, lawyers, and a tight knit group of lawyers who became their biggest public advocates.
Antron McCray and Kharey Wise did not attend the news conference in front of New York’s City Hall in downtown Manhattan.
Meanwhile these names all sounded like dirty words when mentioned by lawyers for the Central Park 5: Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor; Ray Kelly, the former police commissioner; Michael Cardozo, the city’s former corporation counsel; and, Donald Trump the developer.
One of the lawyers, Roger Wareham, said had he and his colleagues and activists, including from the December 12 Movement, not mounted the tireless campaign and courtroom battles on behalf of the Central Park 5 “we would have been complicit to the Scottsboro case; we would have been complicit to the Emmett Till case,” a reference to two of the many lowpoints in the history of American injustice.
Wareham said through the years, the lawyers, the exonerated men and their families had developed a very close relationship. “We are family now,” he said, adding that the bond would continue well beyond the case.
Supporters of the men for years said there was police and prosecutorial misconduct from the very beginning, when Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker was found raped and brutally beaten in Central Park, in April 1989. The NYPD ignored police procedure and sparked a media demonization frenzy by releasing, shortly after the arrests, even before arraignment or indictment, the names and photographs of the arrested teenagers, including a 14-year-old juvenile who was later released without any charges.
The youth were labeled as having been out “wilding” like a “wolfpack” by New York’s tabloid media.
Lawyers at the time for the teenagers said McCray, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Salaam had been coerced and tricked into making confessions by detectives. All later retracted their confessions.
The DNA collected at the crime scene at the time did not match any of the teenagers’. It was years later, in 2002, after Matias Reyes’, a murderer and serial rapist serving a 33-years-to-life sentence confessed that he alone committed the rape that the DNA recovered was matched to his as the sole contributor of the semen recovered at the scene.
Michael Tarrif Warren, speaking at the press conference today said the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio was a game changer in terms of the settlement. He said Bloomberg, Kelly and Cardozo were determined not to settle. He noted there had been more than 100 depositions and that thousands of documents were exchanged. “They did everything in their power to resist this kind of resolution,” Warren said, comparing Bloomberg’s position with with the settlement under de Blasio’s administration.
Warren said while there were now some smiles with the formal end to the case, “there are scars inside which will never heal” for the five men “for having their youth stolen from them.”
Jonathan Moore, one of the lawyers, said the families of the men had also been victimized. “It was the Central Park 20,” Moore, said, noting that the family members of the men supported them while they were behind bars and attended the numerous court proceedings.
Moore said the settlement “raised the bar” for other abuse cases, going forward. He said even though the City didn’t admit any guilt for the actions of the police officers he said coerced and tricked the men, then teenagers into confessing in 1989, the size of the settlement spoke for itself. “If they didn’t do anything wrong why are they paying $40 million?” he said, adding that he hoped the settlement would help “make sure that this terrible tragedy never happens again.”
The lawyers, three of the Central Park 5 who attended the event, and their relatives all praised State Senator Bill Perkins as having been one of the earliest elected officials to rally support for the case.
Many speakers had harsh words for Trump who, shortly after the rape of Meili placed full-page ads in The Daily News, The New York Times, New York Newsday and The New York Post, calling for the death penalty and the execution of the five men under the headline ”Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”
The men were convicted and served long prison terms before Reyes’ 2002 confession. In December 2002, then New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau moved for a judge to vacate the convictions.
What ensued, over the subsequent 12 years, was a drawn-out battle with the Bloomberg Administration which simply refused to settle the case.
The speaker whose words struck the most sobering tone at today’s press conference was Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusuf Abdus Salaam, who said she didn’t consider the financial settlement with the City a victory at all.
“What victory?” she asked, surrounded by about two dozens supporters and relatives of the men, and staring at reporters and a battery of cameras before her.
Ms. Salaam said Black youth were still being victimized by the New York Police Department and that many innocent men were likely still serving prison terms. She called for a review of all the past cases handled by the lead prosecutor of the Central Park 5, Elizabeth Lederer, and Linda Fairstein, who was then head of the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit.
Lederer as the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case told the jury that hair found in the clothing of one of the Central Park 5 “matched” hair from the victim, which was completely false.
Fairstein, who reportedly participated in coercing the confessions, has been sued for false prosecution in another case. She was also reportedly instrumental in current New York County DA Cyrus Vance Jr.’s decision not to prosecute the now thoroughly-disgraced Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges that he raped a 32-year-old hotel employee Nafissatou Diallo.
At today’s news conference Richardson, Santana, and Salaam, all said while the settlement amount was significant, that they were more eager to close a long and tortuous chapter in their lives. Richardson, who was first to speak, choked up when he recounted how they had endured the years of imprisonment and then coming out to a world where no one wanted to employ them. “Our family was all we had,” he said. He could not hold back the tears when he said he had a sister and would never commit rape.
Raymond Santana, speaking in a calm deliberative manner, noted that since the documentary about the case, “The Central Park Five” by filmmaker Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah Burns came out, the men have been on several speaking engagements. He’s also become an advocate for the Innocence Project.
He too spoke of the torture of being tagged a “murderer” and “rapist,” who had been out “wilding” on that fated evening.
Santana said there were hundreds of documents connected to the case that had been sealed, and would show the extent of prosecutorial misconduct on the case, and he challenged the media to seek their release.
His sister, Joanne Santana, said Donald Trump’s reaction, still insisting that the men were guilty, and lingering doubts by some in the media, confirms the divisions in New York City. “He wants to kill innocent youth through the death penalty,” she said, of Trump. “And he’s still angry and spewing against us…There is a lot of anger and hate.”
“I wonder what Donald Trump would have done had that been his White child,” Ms. Salaam said, echoing Ms. Santana’s words.
The men and their relatives praised the support from several activists, in addition to Senator Perkins, such as: the late Elombe Brath and his wife Numsa; Omowale Clay, who helped convene the press conference and moderated the questioning; the December 12 Movement; Rev. Al Sharpton; Charles Barron; Keith Wright; and Rep. Charles Rangel.
In a statement The December 12 Movement, which spearheaded much of the activism and publicity in support of the Central Park 5 praised: Perkins; Brath and Numsa; Barron for “his consistent and dedicated leadership” and for sponsoring a proclamation supporting the Central Park five while he was a New York City council member; former Comptroller John Liu for calling for a settlement while he was still in office; the Burns; current Comptroller Scott Stringer, for backing and approving the settlement; Mayor de Blasio; and, the Black press, especially The Amsterdam News and Gary Byrd’s “Global Black Experience” show, for consistently highlighting the Central Park 5’s case.