The recent news about the city finally financially compensating the five Harlem young men who were unjustly incarcerated a quarter of a century ago for the brutal April 19, 1989, assault and rape of Trisha Ellen Meili, a 28-year-old Caucasian female jogger in Central Park, conjures up memories about another highly politicized miscarriage of justice involving half a dozen Harlem teenagers who were also wrongfully convicted for a heinous crime committed against Caucasians.
Almost exactly 25 years earlier, an April 17, 1964, afternoon altercation between several local Black teenagers on their way home after a day of classes at Harlem’s Rice High School (74 W.124th St.) and a Caucasian store merchant at 368 Lenox Ave. sparked a mini-melee, which concluded after cops brutalized the teens, arrested two of them and blinded 31-year-old Frank Stafford in one eye after he questioned the cops about assaulting the youths. The incident became known as the “Harlem Fruit Stand Riot.”
The April 29, 1964, murder of a Caucasian woman, Margit Sugar, 45, and critical wounding of her husband, Frank Sugar, 50, in their secondhand clothing store at 3 W. 125th St. was blamed on some youths who were present during the Lenox Avenue conflict two weeks earlier. Wallace Baker, 19, William Craig, 17, Ronald Felder, 18, Donald Hamm,18, Robert Rice, 17, and Walter Thomas, 18, were arrested days later after acquaintance Robert Barnes Jr., 17, accused them of the crime.
Just as in the Central Park Five case two and a half decades later, the media vilified, tried and fried the youth before they had their say on the stand, alleging they belonged to an “anti-white gang” named “the Blood Brothers.”
“The existence of a Harlem gang indoctrinated in hatred of all white persons is chilling news,” reads a May 8, 1964, New York Times article.
The teens were wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder and attempted robbery July 17, 1965, in what infamously became known as the “Harlem Six” case. Months later, they were sentenced to life terms, which were later reversed upon appeal in November 1968 after it was revealed that the teens’ confessions had been coerced. They were granted a retrial, even though they remained incarcerated.
Rice was retried separately in 1970 and was convicted of first-degree murder. Later that year, Hamm pled guilty to manslaughter and was released, and in July 1972, Barnes confessed to lying, citing police intimidation.
In 1973, after being held behind bars without bail for nine years and enduring three hung juries, the remaining four men pled guilty to manslaughter in exchange for suspended sentences and were released.
Activists-actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were staunch supporters throughout the ordeal, and Dee even portrayed one of the youths’ mothers in director Woodie King’s 1980 movie about the case, “The Torture of Mothers.”
In both situations, the media prejudiced the jury pool, as the highly publicized, racially tinged cases had the city on edge. The event acted as a springboard for several people who went on to have lucrative careers in the law arena. These cases raise the question, just how many more innocent people are serving time for crimes they didn’t commit, who didn’t have the media hype of these cases?