The Exonerated Central Park Five: The Stolen Youth


Clockwise from top left, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Marquis Rodriguez, Jharrel Jerome, Ethan Herisse, Asante Blackk and Caleel Harris. Credit Brad Ogbonna for The New York Times

One morning earlier this month, a group of 10 men and teenage boys gathered for a photoshoot in a small studio on the Lower East Side. The overall mood was chill; as the music of Nipsey Hussle, 50 Cent, and Wale filled the room, they chatted amiably in between shots, laughing, joking, and moving along to the beats.

The occasion for this gathering was bittersweet: Five of the subjects were Korey Wise, 46; Kevin Richardson, 44; Raymond Santana, 44; Antron McCray, 45; and Yusef Salaam, 45, known collectively as the Central Park Five. 

In 1989 the men — then teenagers — were arrested in connection with the rape and assault of a white female jogger and eventually convicted in a case that came to symbolize the stark injustices black and brown people experience within the legal system and in media coverage.   As the DNA evidence from semen found at the scene didn’t match any of the five boys, prosecutors relied solely on the initial interrogations.  But the Five took back those statements – saying police had coerced them into giving false confessions.

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, Salaam said: “I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room.

“They would come and look at me and say: ‘You realize you’re next.’

“The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out.”

After two trials, the five teenagers were found guilty of offenses including attempted murder, rape, assault and robbery, and were convicted to six to 13 years in prison.  New York in the 80s and 90s was much more dangerous than it is today.  Race relations were strained – especially when it came to the police.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump – then a New York property mogul – seemed convinced the teens were guilty.

He spent a reported $85,000 on four full-page adverts in New York newspapers titled: “Bring Back The Death Penalty, Bring Back Our Police!”  He wrote: “I want to hate these murderers, and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them; I am looking to punish them.  In an interview with CNN at the time, he said: “Maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.”

It seemed to feed into the atmosphere of high crime rates and poor race relations in the city at the time.  But the men maintained their innocence throughout the case, trial, and prison terms, and all were acquitted after Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to the crime in 2002.

In 2002, a year after his second meeting, Reyes told the police he was the one who’d attacked and sexually assaulted Meili when he was 17 – and said he’d acted alone.  He was able to tell police details about the attack that wasn’t public knowledge, and his DNA matched that at the scene of the crime.  One of the crimes he’d been found guilty of was another rape two days before the Meili incident – but he was never a suspect in the Central Park Jogger case.

Reyes later said: “I know it’s hard for people to understand, after 12 years, why a person would actually come forward to take responsibility for a crime.

“At first, I was afraid, but at the end of the day, I felt it was definitely the right thing to do.”

Eventually, the five men were cleared of all charges, having almost served their full sentences.  Reyes was never prosecuted for the crimes the Five were accused of as the statute of limitations had passed.  He remains in prison on a life sentence, although he has a parole hearing scheduled for 2022.

The Five filed a civil suit against New York City and received $41m in the settlement on their release.  Korey Wise received the most significant share of $12m because he was the only one who’d been sentenced as an adult and so spent the longest time in prison.

Speaking in a 2012 documentary about the case, he said: “You can forgive, but you won’t forget. You won’t forget what you lost.

“No money could bring that time back. No money could bring the life that was missing or the time that was taken away.”

Raymond Santana

Raymond was also only 14 years old when he was arrested in connection to the Central Park Jogger case. After submitting a false confession, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to five to 10 years in a youth correctional facility. He served six years before he was released.

Today, Raymond lives in Georgia with his teenage daughter. In June, he and his girlfriend, Flavor of Love star Deelishis, tied the knot after getting engaged six months prior.

Korey Wise 

Korey Wise was with his friend Yusef Salaam when police picked up Salaam to take him in for questioning. Wise, 16, wasn’t a suspect, but he agreed to go with his friend for moral support. He ended up being charged as well and served more than 13 years, the five boys’ longest. His chance encounter in prison with Matias Reyes, who was serving a life sentence for multiple rapes and a murder, led Reyes to admit to the Central Park rape and, after DNA confirmation, the men’s exoneration.

Since being released from prison and exonerated, Korey has continued to live in New York City, where he works as a public speaker and criminal justice reform advocate. In 2015, he donated $190,000 to the University of Colorado’s chapter of the Innocence Project, which then changed its name to the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law in his honor.

Yusef Salaam 

Yusef was 15 years old when he was wrongfully accused of participating in the rape of the Central Park Jogger. Unlike the other boys, he never actually submitted a written or videotaped confession — but he was wrongfully convicted nonetheless. Like Kevin, Antron, and Raymond, Yusef was sentenced to five to 10 years in a youth correctional facility and ended up serving more than six years.

Today, Yusef is a father to 10 children and lives in Georgia with his family. He’s a published poet, public speaker, and advocate for criminal justice reform. Yusef has also received various awards for his work, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from former President Barack Obama in 2016.

Antron McCray 

At the time of his arrest in connection to the Central Park Jogger case, Antron was 15 years old. He was pushed to falsely confess by his father, who believed Antron might go free if he told police he was involved in the jogger’s rape. Unfortunately, this led to Antron’s wrongful conviction, and he served six years in a youth correctional facility before going free.

Antron leads a relatively quiet life today in Georgia, where he lives with his wife and six children. But to this day, he still has not forgiven his father for pushing him to lie to the police.

“I looked up to my father,” he told CBS News. “But he gave up on me. You know, I was telling the truth, and he just told me to lie … Why should I [make peace with him]?”

Kevin Richardson 

Kevin was just 14 years old when he became a suspect in the Central Park Jogger case. After being wrongfully convicted, he was sentenced to five to 10 years in a youth correctional facility and ultimately served six years before being released. 

Today, Kevin lives in New Jersey with his wife and two daughters. He advocates for criminal justice reform and continues to speak about his experiences at various events.