Written By: Katherine Balbin
On April 19, 1989, a white woman was taking a late afternoon jog in Central Park when she was brutally assaulted, leaving her barely breathing with little chance of surviving. Later, around midnight, her body was found and she was sent to the hospital. While recovering, Trisha Meili said she could not recall what had happened that night nor who the perpetrators were. Later, five young Black and brown boys were convicted of her assault without just cause. The case came with a slew of media coverage, bias and fabricated stories. The true story of the five would unveil a corrupt, unjust, and racist criminal legal system.
A large group of teens gathered in Central Park for the usual recreational activities in the late afternoon. The boys were being playful, loud, energetic and caused some disturbances in the park which would then cause the police to be called because of the boys harassing people. According to ABC News, police arrived and were scrambling as soon as they got there because of the abundance of calls made. All of the boys ran in fear. Police eventually started catching suspects for the sling of crimes committed throughout the night. Around 20 suspects were brought in to be questioned. Out of the small group, 5 were sent to be further interrogated: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, youngest of whom was only 14 and the oldest 16. According to BBC News, they were questioned for almost seven hours without any guardian or legal council present. Four videotaped confessions were made. Weeks later, when all of them could get legal counsel, they all withdrew their statements and confessions declaring they were threatened and coerced to admit to the crime. All throughout the trial, they refused guilty plea deals and fought for their innocence.
The press and the media were not easy on the boys. They were nicknamed “Wolf Pack,” and people saw them as savages. Their families were threatened. The media was exploding with lies and invented stories. On May 1st, Donald Trump took out a full-page advertisement in four different New York City newspapers arguing for the death penalty. According to BBC News, he spent $85,000 to take out the ad. As more tensions grew, the amount of fear the 5 boys and their families felt had grown even further.
There were two separate trials to separate the group. They separated the group so the inconsistencies in their stories wouldn’t be as apparent. Separating them meant prosecutors could control the evidence and the narrative. According to History.com, there was DNA at the crime scene, but no eye witnesses. The DNA did not match any of the boys. Even so, they were all convicted on the charges of rape, assault, robbery and riot, attempted murder, and sexual abuse. They all served their time in full except for Korey Wise, who was still serving his time when all the young men were exonerated. Their sentences ranged from 6 to 12 years in prison. At the time Korey wasn’t a suspect, but waited for his friend Yussef. Detectives turned him into a suspect and he ended up serving the most time. During Koreys time in prison he met an inmate named Matias Reyes. Later, Reyes fully admitted to what he did to Trisha Melli on the night of April 19, 1989. He confessed to the Central Park crime. His confession lined up perfectly to the timeline, assault weapon and most important of all the DNA. He was the DNA match found at the crime scene. After years having a conviction glued to their names, all five were exonerated for the Central Park crime.
Now in 2023 the 20th anniversary of their exoneration. New York’s Central Park built a gate, named “Gate of the Exonerated,” to commemorate the Central Park Five and all the people of New York City who were ever falsely convicted. The new gate was constructed by the members of the local community board, members of the Central Park Conservancy, and criminal justice advocates. The gate is a reminder of the desperately needed reform of the criminal justice system. Not only in New York City but in the United States. It is hope for real, genuine change in the foreseeable future.