Free but still seeking justice

April 29, 2009

Twenty years ago in April, the Central Park Jogger case grabbed headlines and intensified the law-and-order frenzy promoted by politicians and the media.

After the rape of a woman in New York City's Central Park, the media filled the airwaves with allegations about "wilding"--senseless acts of terror supposedly committed by packs of Black and Latino youth against respectable citizens. Five young African American men were arrested in the jogger case--Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise, later known as the "Central Park Five."

They became the face of the panic. Multimillionaire Donald Trump took out newspaper ads calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty as punishment in the Central Park jogger case.

But the five were entirely innocent. They were fully exonerated only in 2002 when another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence confirmed him as the attacker. All five lost years of their lives in jail.

Yusef Salaam is known today as an outspoken activist--not just around his own case, but against the death penalty and what he calls the "criminal system of injustice." On the 20th anniversary of his arrest, he spoke to Ben Davis about the case and the struggle he's a part of today.

IT'S BEEN 20 years since you were picked up for a crime that you didn't commit. I've heard you say that you were a "modern-day Scottsboro boy." Why do you think that there was such a witch-hunt around the case of the "Central Park Five?"

ONE THING about the "Central Park Jogger" case--which became the "Central Park Five" case--is that it was such a horrible crime that, in the city's rush to judgment, they made a lot of mistakes. And, in my interpretation, they kind of glossed over those mistakes, because they thought they had who they wanted.

In terms of the Scottsboro Boys case--that was a case that happened in 1931 in Alabama. They made a rush to judgment because a white woman said that she was raped by some Black guys. They came to find out that she actually wasn't raped by them.

Unfortunately, in our case, this is a woman who actually was raped--and the DNA evidence proves that the real perpetrator was Matias Reyes.

THESE DAYS even the Daily News is running sympathetic stories about you. But in the original case, the media played a big role in whipping up hysteria. What was the role of the media in your case?

Yusef Salaam
Yusef Salaam

I DON'T think I really became savvy to what the media's role is, what the media's role was and what the media's role always has been, until I became a little older.

I appreciate it looking back now. There was a courtroom artist who made an apology in one of these books [on the case]. He or she said they felt like they played a role in convicting us, and the role that they played was in depicting us in the worst possible fashion. You know, they can make you look like either a demon or an angel.

In our cases, they made us look like the worst of the worst, which made it easier for the public to accept that we were who they wanted us to be. They can make people think that these people are animals, or these people are roaches that need to be stepped on and disposed of--the media can convey that message.

Every time you turn on the news or read the newspaper, you feel like you are reading the real deal. It's unfortunate that a lot of time stories are greatly skewed, because of the ultimate ends that they are trying to accomplish.

YOU'VE NEVER been compensated for the years you lost in jail. I was at City Hall today when your mother and many others were calling for compensation for the Central Park Five. Can you talk about what your fight has been since you were exonerated and what you're asking for?

WELL, I think individually, the amounts are something like $50 million--$50 million each. It's more than that when you take into account the lawsuits of the families as well, the parents that were involved, the siblings that were involved, the loss of familiarity.

Kharey Wise was at the demonstration. He lost 13 years of his life. He didn't have the same family communication that I had. They didn't come up as often because he was so far away.

With me, I had a little bit more of that family communication. But I was also away from my family. So I'm growing up, so to speak--I don't necessarily want to say in a vacuum, but in the isolation that is prison, that world within a world.

Kharey Wise is looking for a job. He's a grown man; he's older than I am. He's looking to support himself. He's still living with his parents, and it's very difficult, because when you become an adult, you want to do adult things--whether that means providing for yourself or moving on with your life or creating a family of your own. And when you can't do that, it's very hard and saddening.

There's no way that any amount of money can make up for anything you went though--the horrible treatment you received in prison, the beatings you may have received. [Former death row prisoner] Lawrence Hayes talks about parole and what that does to you--it's really, really something.

Because I was in prison for something that's supposed to be the worst crime that you can commit ever, they have a way of dealing with you. I don't know what everyone else went through--my time was rough, but it was a little bit more personalized. Whereas Kharey Wise got assaulted almost immediately after he went to Riker's Island, and, after that assault, they took him out of the regular population and he spent the rest of his prison term in solitary, in voluntary protective custody, I had a chance to stay in the regular population.

We're trying to put our lives back together. Compensation is one of the ways the city says, "We're sorry, we need to make amends." And if you're trying to put a figure on it, $50 million is probably too low a figure for everyone involved.

THE CENTRAL Park Five case is a really famous instance of police coercing confessions. Can you explain what happened to you?

I CAN'T get into the details because of the civil suit. But in terms of just the tactics, I remember an individual at the Chicago convention [of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty] two years ago talking about the tactics used by the Reid Institute, which is supposed to be the number one institute that teaches police officers and FBI agents how to interrogate. One of the things that was so amazing about this individual is that he said there's a disclaimer on this information. It says, "Don't use this unless you are absolutely sure that the individual you are interrogating is guilty," because if you're not, and you interrogate someone that is innocent, they are going to confess to a crime that they didn't commit.

They're not just going to twist your arm and say you did it. There's a whole host of other things that go on, torturing and trauma. Crazy stuff that happens. This puts into context the false confessions made by my co-defendants--none of them supported the other, none related to the reality that happened in the case.

The police knew that. They knew that they were telling lies, that they were telling things that didn't actually happen. But they accepted that, and they took that to trial. In my case, there was no written or videotaped confession. But they used my co-defendants' false confessions against me, which ultimately sent me to prison.

YOU'RE ON the board of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. I've seen you speak probably dozens of times about your case, and about the cases of those who faced the death penalty, like Stan Tookie Williams, Kenneth Foster and Troy Davis. Most recently you spoke alongside the sister of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Do you see a connection between these cases and yours? Why is it important for you to be involved?

WELL, THERE'S definitely a connection. One of the most blatant connections is racism. But the other connection is that one day I just woke up and realized that, whoa, I was in a way on death row.

I went to the Daily News Web site to go over the article that was written on us again. Now this was 2009--and looking down at the article. They had six pages of comments. I didn't get a chance to read everything, but, if you read some of this stuff, you'll see that racism is still alive and well.

A lot of people believe that we were let off on a technicality. In reality, the district attorney's office produced something like a 1,500- or 15,000-page document--I can't remember the exact number--stating why they had to let us go and why they had to exonerate us. It wasn't like there was a technical blunder and they forgot to cross the "t"--they knew that they had the wrong people.

You look at a case like Mumia Abu-Jamal, and they know he didn't do this crime. There's a lot of evidence that proves he didn't do the crime. The only thing he doesn't have is a videotape of him not doing the crime and someone else doing the crime. In Texas, when they did some 40 DNA tests on the inmates, 18 came back as "no match." These people couldn't have done the crime, yet they had these people in prison.

You put that in context. If this is an example of the amount of people who are in prison who are actually there for crimes they didn't commit, that's crazy. That's something to be said about the criminal justice system. That's why I always call it the criminal system of injustice.

Because we don't receive justice. If you're poor, you won't receive justice. If you're a person of color, you won't receive justice.

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