A recent press conference revealed that New York City is about to name a Central Park entrance the “Gate of the Exonerated.” This is where five teenagers were falsely accused, convicted, and were demeaned in the media as the Central Park Five for an April 1989 sexual assault that they were innocent of, and later exonerated for. A December 15th press conference was held by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, Assemblyman Clyde Vanel and Harlem’s Senator-elect Cordelle Cleare, to introduce three bills to stop and to protect the youth in New York City from suffering the plight of the 5 teenagers: Raymond Santana, 14; Korey Wise, 16; Kevin Richardson, 14; Yusef Salaam, 15; and Antron McCray, 15. In a case which shook the city, they were falsely accused, wrongfully incarcerated, and convicted in New York City for a rape of a white woman in Central Park.
After spending several years in prison, the young men were cleared by a confession from a serial rapist by the name of Matias Reyes, who admitted to being the sole attacker of Central Park jogger Trisha Meili, the victim of the sexual assault in the park on April 19, 1989.
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie addressed the need to reform the criminal justice system in New York, saying that it lacks accountability and transparency, and that it must be overhauled to make our system fair and more just. The first bill he introduced was The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, which would allow for post-conviction discovery that will allow counsel to challenge a conviction, and to disallow a guilty plea on other than new DNA evidence that can overturn a conviction. Myrie said, “We are collectively demanding today that not one more person suffer under any wrongful conviction.”
The second bill was introduced to correct and remove the technicality allowing police and law enforcement the right to lie during interrogation. This bill would dismiss any evidence that comes from interrogation where a law enforcement officer lied to get a confession. The last bill is the youth right to remain silent act. “This bill says no longer will officers be able to interrogate a young person and have them waive their Miranda rights until they have spoken to their attorney. Under this bill any evidence obtained without counsel present will be dismissed.”
One of the sponsors of the bills present was Assemblyman Clyde Vanel from Queens. He pointed out that, “It’s a shame that here in New York State that an innocent person can spend even one day in jail, and most times those who are wrongly convicted look a certain way.”
He vowed to work with others in both houses in Albany to make sure that these three bills get passed and signed by the governor.
Newly elected State Sen. Cordell Cleare spoke and gave her support behind the pending legislation to protect our youth from being wrongfully incarcerated, “This is a serious situation where these young men were vilified, demonized, and their families were disrespected. This has to stop.” She went on to reminisce about the connection of a similar case in the past, “From Emmett Till to the days of the Exonerated 5, some people used threats and intimidation to threaten our youth to confession. We as a community must continue to stand with these young men, and others like them, from being tricked into confessions.”
Three of the Exonerated Five were present and spoke on the injustices they had to endure. Yusef Salaam recalled when he was victimized and vilified for a crime that he did not commit, that here in this park is a crime scene that displayed him and his friends as the scum of the Earth. But he gave praise to Allah (God) that he doesn’t look like what he went through over the years. Raymond Santana, one of the Exonerees, said, “This is an opportunity for us to step forward, make our voices heard until we get these bills passed for those who it has affected, those who are oppressed and those who have passed away.” Kevin Richardson recalled the indignities and living with the label from the press, called a “wolf pack,” and how they deserved to be hung from a tree in Central Park. He said, “I can’t imagine another fragile young person to go through what we went through. We have had enough of this and this we must change.”
Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusef Salaam, held back the emotions to not recount the travesty of justice that her family suffered over the years but riled up the crowd to fight for victory until these bills are passed for not only the wrongfully convicted and those who are grossly incarcerated youth but, “to fight for our people and start fighting with me until the wrongs are made right.”
Student Minister Arthur Muhammad from the historic Muhammad Mosque No.7 in Harlem said, “It is profoundly fitting for these victims of the systemic injustice that NYC police and courts are infamously known for, to be advocates for changing the laws that will potentially benefit others to avoid what injustices they suffered from. I have known Yusef Salaam since he was 14 years old. I pray that these three bills are passed expeditiously so that no other Black, Brown or any other youth can be wrongfully convicted and to have their young lives damaged by an inhumane system of justice and degradation like the Exonerated Five had to go through for all of those years.”
Senator Myrie pointed out that, “The legislative calendar is from January to June 2022, and we have until that time to get these bills passed. It is our goal to get the public’s attention and support. We want our colleagues in the State Senate and the State Assembly to get on board with these bills that have already been introduced and get this criminal reform bill done in that time. We expect it to be passed so that in 2022—the 20th anniversary of the Exonerated Five’s freedom—we can celebrate with the new legislation being passed.”