Yusef Salaam served nearly seven years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. A member of the “Central Park Five,” Salaam was falsely convicted of brutally raping and beating a female jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The only evidence used against him: his own words.
Salaam was 15 at the time, and was interrogated by the New York Police Department for more than 15 hours straight, before he finally confessed to a rape he had nothing to do with.
Salaam was in Los Angeles last Wednesday, along with fellow Central Park Five members Kevin Richardson and Khorey Wise, to talk about his experiences—following a screening of documentarian Ken Burns’s new film about their case: The Central Park Five. Salaam began his remarks by telling the audience that within five minutes of arriving in Los Angeles, he was detained by an officer and questioned.
“I was getting ready to get on the Supershuttle to come here, when [the officer] pulled me aside and asked me, ‘Why are you here, business or pleasure?’ ”
Salaam explained he was in town to give a lecture at USC, and the officer let him go, Still, the interaction shook Salaam, as well as Richardson and Wise. A random check like the one he described may seem relatively benign—a perhaps racially motivated annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless—yet it was exactly such an interaction that got Salaam and the rest of the Central Park Five locked up in prison.
On the night of April 19, 1989, Salaam, Richardson, Wise, as well as Antron McCray and Raymond Santana Jr. (all ages 14 to 16, none of whom knew each other) were part of a large group of teenagers parading around Central Park in New York City—the same night a 28-year-old white, female jogger was brutally raped and beaten. When the woman was discovered lying near-death in the bushes, NYPD rounded up several black and brown youths near the park and detained them for questioning.
“All the jury saw was that confession. They didn’t see the 30 hours of interrogation that took place before that. I just wanted to go home. I told [the NYPD] what I thought would get me out of there.”
After enduring marathon interrogations of 14 to 30 hours, the five boys cracked. Though DNA evidence collected from the crime scene didn’t match any of the boys (and was later linked to a serial rapist named Matias Reyes), prosecutors went ahead and charged them all, based solely on their false confessions. They were sentenced to 5 to 15 years respectively in prison.
“The goal is to break the suspect down to helplessness and despair,” social psychologist Saul Kassin explains of the interrogation process in the film. “Once the confession is taken, it trumps everything else. It trumps DNA evidence. Its effects cannot be reversed.”
The Central Park Five has helped generate a new debate around the issue of false confessions. Salaam, Wise and Richardson all told the USC audience that they would like to see criminal interrogations be videotaped in their entirety—especially the interrogations of juveniles.
“All the jury saw was that confession,” Wise said. “They didn’t see the 30 hours of interrogation that took place before that. I just wanted to go home. I told [the NYPD] what I thought would get me out of there.”
University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garret is an advocate of videotaping interrogations. His book Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong examines 250 cases of exonerations by DNA evidence. Forty of those involved false confessions.
The Innocence Project, meanwhile, estimates that 25 percent of all exonerations culled from DNA evidence involved overturning convictions based on false, self-incriminating testimony by the defendants.
As their experience at LAX indicates, members of the Central Park Five may be nearing 40, but they are in no way immune to becoming ensnared in the tangles of law enforcement.
“We’re not kids anymore,” Richardson told the audience. “We know how to handle these situations now.”
Richardson, however, fears for the millions of black and brown youth across America who don’t.
“We’re trying to use our story to make sure no one else has to go through what we did.”
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