James Han

In 1989, five teenagers were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a white female jogger in Central Park. Thirty years later, one of the exonerated “Central Park Five” spoke about criminal justice in front of a sold-out crowd in Battell Chapel.

Yusef Salaam spoke about the intense media coverage of the “Central Park jogger case,” the racism that surrounded the proceedings and the public response to his exoneration. Since his release, Salaam has become a criminal justice reform advocate, a published poet and a motivational speaker, traveling around the country to educate people about issues of social justice. He is also an activist with the Innocence Project — a criminal justice nonprofit — and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama in 2016.

“It was one of the most painful experiences imaginable,” Salaam said of his trial. “[I had] already been vilified by [the criminal justice] system, and now we were run over by the spokes of justice again.”

The trial, which garnered national news attention, centered around a female victim who was sexually assaulted in New York City’s Central Park. Soon thereafter, the New York Police Department detained five teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16, who were labeled by the media as the “Central Park Five.” Their convictions were based primarily on coerced confessions and public opinion that swung heavily against them, resulting in the five spending six to 13 years in prison. Salaam spent six years and eight months in prison and was released in 1997. In 2002, convicted murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, and his DNA matched evidence at the scene.

In his talk, Salaam said that the public response to the Central Park Five’s exoneration was nothing compared to the “fanfare” that had surrounded their prosecution. In fact, he said that many believed the five were still guilty but had been released on “DNA technicalities.” He went on to say that the criminal justice system has constantly taught Americans that people of color were culpable without giving them the benefit of assumed innocence.

At the time of the trial, Salaam said that New Yorkers banded together to denounce the boys. He said that over 400 newspapers fanned the flames of a sensational story and painted a picture of the teenagers as evil. One article encouraged stripping the boys naked or hanging them from a tree in Central Park, Salaam said.

“This was the story of American history,” Salaam said, referring to the narrative that the tabloids perpetuated. “This was the story of five brutes raping one of the most precious of Americans — a white woman.”

Salaam mentioned that the failure to prosecute Reyes had a two-pronged effect. Not only did it lead to the incarceration of five innocents, but it also meant that Reyes continued to commit crimes and hurt others in the following 13 years.

The year after their release, the five men filed a lawsuit against the city of New York for racial discrimination, malicious prosecution and emotional distress. Over a decade later, the city finally settled with the plaintiffs for $41 million.

“The Central Park jogger case is actually a story of how a criminal system of injustice can be turned on its side to produce a miracle in modern time,” Salaam said, expressing disbelief that he was ultimately exonerated. “This is a story of how people can be brought low only to rise because the truth can never be buried.”

In May 2019, the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “When They See Us” revived national interest in the story of the exonerated Central Park Five, shedding light on the racially motivated biases in the criminal justice system.

“[When They See Us] has been so powerful that the [Battell Chapel event] sold out in five days,” event organizer Abdul-Rehman Malik told the News. “We are filling the second largest hall on campus with students and members of the New Haven community whose nerves have been touched and
conscience pricked.”

Yale College Council President Kahlil Greene ’21 added that the event is particularly relevant given the April police shooting of unarmed citizens Stephanie Washington and Paul
Witherspoon.

“It is important to hear the insights of those who the system has failed so that we are better prepared to implement reforms,” Greene said.

Salaam’s speech was organized by the Yale Chaplain’s Office, Muslim Life at Yale and Dwight Hall at Yale’s Muslim Leadership Lab, and supported by the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Office of the Secretary and Vice President of University Life, the Office of Community Equity at Yale Divinity School, Asian American Cultural Center, Yale College Council, La Casa and the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration.

Malik noted that this “unique coalition” of campus organizations is meaningful because Salaam “speaks at the intersection of what it means to be African American, Muslim and someone who has been wrongfully incarcerated.”

“It is a true coalition of the willing,” Malik said.

In 2014, Salaam received an honorary doctorate of humanities from Anointed by God Ministries Alliance and Seminary.

 

 

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.eu

Ella Goldblum | ella.goldblum@yale.edu