Last week, a sixth, “forgotten” co-defendant wrongfully indicted for the 1989 rape and assault of white jogger Patricia “Trisha” Meili was exonerated for convictions stemming from the infamous case. But Steven Lopez’s vindication isn’t just as simple as the Central Park Five+1, but rather an example of the far-reaching consequences of a three-decade old story that continues to develop even today.

Dr. Yusef Salaam says before he was a part of the Central Park Five, there were initially seven Black and Brown teens vilified, including Lopez. Harlem youngster Michael Briscoe rounded out the group, but was only charged with assaulting another jogger, David Lewis. He pleaded guilty in 1990. But Lopez, like the Central Park Five, was indicted for Meili’s rape. Ultimately, he was offered a plea deal to avoid the trial in exchange for exclusively pleading guilty to a lesser charge for robbing a male jogger. The same conviction was overturned last Monday. 

“It’s magnificent, it’s a miracle, for Steven Lopez to receive justice, to be able to put his life back together [and] to be able to say, ‘I’m able to finally put this chapter behind me,’” said Salaam. “You can imagine 33 years has gone by and he was one of the forgotten members of the original, seven individuals that were being persecuted. For this case, we were the pariahs, we were the ones who Donald Trump took out the full page ad calling for the media to kill us.”

Along with Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were collectively known as the Central Park Five and now known as the Exonerated Five. They were teenagers when their lives were exposed to the public and their names torn apart by “everyone and anyone.” Wrongfully convicted for Meili’s rape, the five were exonerated in 2002 after DNA testing and a confession from the actual attacker, Matias Reyes. Over a decade later, ex-Mayor Bill De Blasio settled with the exonerated men. 

Lopez is currently not in contact with Salaam, or the other members of the Exonerated Five. Following last Monday’s news, his lawyer Eric S. Renfroe maintained the 48-year-old wanted his privacy. One of the Exonerated Five’s biggest proponents, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, commended Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for “sure, solid and consistent work” in his role of vacating Lopez’s conviction. And the DA himself notches the first exoneration for his new Post-Conviction Justice Unit. 

To be clear, exonerations aren’t always about prison release. Like Lopez, Salaam finished his sentence—someone else’s sentence—before his conviction was vacated. But he says he was resigned to living in the margins before his 2002 exoneration. Today, he’s a successful author and motivational speaker. And most importantly, Salaam got his name back. Now, Lopez does, too. 

“When you think about the Central Park Jogger case, you’re now talking about six individuals,” said Salaam. “We have the Exonerated Five and now we’re also talking about Steven Lopez, and there are so many others. So it’s not just seven—it’s actually more than that. I want them to be able to get their day in court, for their names to be also restored. Because it’s a beautiful thing for you to be able to say, ‘I told you, I didn’t do it, I told you, I wasn’t a part of that.’” 


Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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