The keynote event of Virginia Tech’s observance of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., will be a panel discussion tonight, Jan. 22, with four members of a group that were originally known as the “Central Park 5” and have now come to be widely known as the “Exonerated Five.” They were wrongly imprisoned as teenagers for more than a decade.
The conservation will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre at the Moss Arts Center. It will feature four members of the group known in 1990 as the Central Park 5: Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam. The group was the focus of a sensationalized trial in the Central Park jogger case in New York City that led to their conviction and imprisonment as teenagers and subsequent exoneration in 2002.
The Central Park jogger case involved the assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman who was jogging in the park, and attacks on eight other persons. Meili was bludgeoned with a rock, tied up, raped and left for dead. She lost 75 percent of her blood and spent 12 days in a coma. The New York Times in 1990 described the attack on her as “one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980s.”
Prosecution of the five defendants in the rape and assault case — Antron McCray, 15, Richardson, 15, Salaam, 15, Santana, 14, and Wise, 16 — was based primarily on confessions they had made after police interrogations. None had counsel during this questioning. Within weeks, they each withdrew these confessions, pleaded not guilty and refused plea deals on the rape and assault charges. None of the suspects’ DNA matched the DNA collected from the crime scene: two semen samples that both belonged to one unidentified man. No substantive physical evidence connected any of the five teenagers to the rape scene, but each was convicted in 1990 of related assault and other charges. Subsequently known as the Central Park Five, they received sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years. Four of the defendants appealed their convictions, but these were affirmed by appellate courts.
In 2001, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist serving life in prison, confessed to officials that he had raped the female jogger. His DNA matched that found at the scene, and he provided other confirmatory evidence. He said he committed the rape alone. Reyes could not be prosecuted for raping Meili because the statute of limitations had passed.
In 2002 Robert Morgenthau, District Attorney for New York County, had his office conduct an investigation and recommended to the state court that the convictions of the five men on all charges be vacated. The court vacated their convictions in 2002, and the state withdrew all charges against the men.
In 2003, the five men sued the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. The city refused to settle the suits for a decade because its lawyers believed that the city could win a court case. After a change in administration, the city settled in 2014 with the five plaintiffs for $41 million. The five men also filed suit against the State of New York for additional damages; this case was settled in 2016 for a total of $3.9 million.
Their case has been the subject of multiple documentary films, including an award-winning effort (The Central Park 5) involving Ken Burns, and, most recently, Netflix’s critically-acclaimed dramatic miniseries “When They See Us,” directed by Ava Duvernay. In the aftermath of the latter work, the men have come to be known as the “Exonerated Five.”
The keynote event will be a panel discussion with the men, moderated by Brandy Faulkner, the Gloria Smith Professor of Africana Studies, and a member of the faculty of Virginia Tech’s Department of Political Science.