WARNING: potential triggers including rape and assault.
On March 9th, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and TUCP hosted two members of the Exonerated Five, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, in McAlister to speak on their stories of overcoming injustice, the continuation of their fight against injustice, and the systemic faults in America’s criminal justice system.
In 1989, a woman jogging through Central Park was brutally attacked and raped, leaving her fighting for her life and unable to recall any events from her attack. In an attempt to hold someone accountable, the NYC Police rounded up and wrongfully convicted five young boys, later to be called “The Central Park Five.” All five boys were between the ages of 14 and 16 at the time. Inevitably, all five were incarcerated; Korey Wise, the oldest of the boys, ended up spending 12 years in prison and experienced horrible abuse and violence. The other four boys spent between five and seven years in prison. It was not until 2002 that they were exonerated through DNA evidence.
The Exonerated Five continue to speak about the injustices they faced, in hopes to “give you the example of when the system goes left,” Santana says. Richardson agrees, stressing the importance of their unique opportunity “to be the voice for the voiceless.” Racism also played a large part in these wrongful accusations, as “super-predator” became a word to describe the five young boys; Santana believes this term was given to the five boys “because [they] represented black boys.” Donald Trump even went as far as to say the death penalty should be reinstated in New York.
During questioning, and throughout the trials for the Exonerated Five, manipulation, intimidation and abuse were used by police and state prosecutors. Richardson claims “[the head prosecutor] couldn’t look us in the eyes because she knew what she did.” All confessions from the boys were coerced, and despite a lack of evidence and inconsistent accounts of the assault, the trials pushed forward. Richardson explains “we were guilty before being proven innocent; we were the sacrificial lambs.” This injustice has now been popularly used to highlight the dangers of police coercion of vulnerable young people, as well as the damaging bias media can invite into a legal case. In particular, the police’s failure to contact guardians of the five boys in order to “divide and conquer” resonates with Richardson, as he sees similar injustices happening with families trying to cross the border.
Following the discussion, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana answered questions alongside mediator Alanah Odoms Hebert, who is “a leading civil rights attorney and the first African American woman to be named executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.” Here are some of their answers.
Odoms Hebert spoke passionately about expunging records for broken laws that are no longer existent: “if we change a law because it is unjust or unconstitutional, then it is unconstitutional for anyone whose life it touched.” This has come to the forefront of criminal justice advocacy today, as many people of color are still imprisoned for marijuana possession, although numerous states have legalized marijuana.
Santana spoke about the failure of former police, judges, and prosecutors to apologize to him and the other Exonerated Five members, explaining “there is room for forgiveness when someone can acknowledge they did something wrong.”
On continuing the fight:
Members of the Exonerated Five have turned their experiences into lifelong missions; all five work closely with the Innocence Project, which seeks to overturn wrongful convictions and bring criminal justice reform to the forefront of legislative priorities. Santana says: “we’ve been fighting for so long that I wake up every morning ready to fight.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Exonerated Five, consider watching “When They See Us,” available on Netflix, which portrays the undeniably important stories of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana.