They were exonerated
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump brought renewed attention to a criminal case that gripped New York City and the nation nearly 30 years ago when he recently suggested that—despite their exoneration—the five black and Hispanic teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” carried out the rape and beating of Trisha Meili, the so-called Central Park jogger, a white female banker who went for a run on the night of April 19, 1989.
“They admitted they were guilty,” the candidate told CNN’s Miguel Marquez this week. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
His comments are not the first time he has spoken out about the case, in which the perpetrator spent “half an hour beating [the victim] senseless with a rock and a metal pipe, raping her and leaving her for dead,” per TIME’s May 8, 1989 recap of the incident. A month after the attack, Trump called for justice by running an ad in the New York Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty.
Five teens — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise — became the chief suspects, and police said that they had engaged in what they called “wilding,” a series of assaults committed that night out of boredom. “Four of them confessed on videotape that the jogger had been one of their victims,” TIME later reported. “They later recanted, saying their statements had been coerced, but all were convicted.”
Then in 2002, their convictions were vacated after convicted murderer Matias Reyes, who was serving a life sentence in prison, confessed to the crime — and DNA evidence proved it. TIME explained how the miscarriage of justice had occurred:
In a 58-page court filing, the lawyers assigned to investigate Reyes’ claim wrote that “ultimately, there proved to be no physical or forensic evidence recovered at the scene or from the person or effects of the victim which connected the defendants to the attack on the jogger, or could establish how many perpetrators participated.”
The weaknesses in the evidence were there from the start. The teenagers confessed to the attack, yet their versions of what happened that night varied widely, from their descriptions of the victim to their account of the crime’s location. There were also inconsistencies about the weapon. Several boys talked of stabbing her repeatedly, but there were no knife wounds. Although their parents were present for part of their questioning, the most damaging admissions all appear to have come when the adults were out of the room.
Perhaps more important, eyewitness testimony from other victims that night seems to suggest that at the time the jogger was being attacked, the boys were involved in muggings elsewhere in the park. Moreover, Reyes had committed another assault in the park a few days earlier; if investigators had noted the similarities in the cases, they might have considered other suspects besides the boys. The police “had made up their minds,” says Roger Wareham, the attorney for McCray, Santana and Richardson. “They weren’t going to let anything spoil their neatly tied package of convictions, and they used these children as scapegoats.”
Twelve years later, the group—who were also the subject of a 2012 Ken Burns documentary—agreed to a more than $40 million settlement with New York City. Trump called the deal a “disgrace” in a June 2014 op-ed for the New York Daily News and wrote “What about the other people who were brutalized that night, in addition to the jogger?…These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
A recent ABC News article reported that one of them, Yusef Salaam, said, “Had Donald Trump had his way … we would have been dead.”
As for the jogger, Meili went on to write a memoir and became a motivational speaker who volunteers with hospitals and charity runs.