For the Central Park Five—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise—the election of New York mayor Bill de Blasio could be a blessing. In 1989, when they were teenagers, the five black and Latino men were falsely accused of and convicted of the brutal beating and rape of Tricia Meili, a 28-year-old white jogger in Central Park. In the sensational, racially charged case, they were coerced into confessions by police and prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer. The five, who were tried as adults and convicted of the crime despite their inconsistent testimony and a lack of their DNA on the victim, had their convictions vacated in 2002 after serial rapist Matias Reyes admitted that he’d committed the rape. That same year the five filed a $250 million civil suit against the city of New York and the officers and prosecutor involved in their case. McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise have waited for a settlement ever since.
In mid-November filmmaker Ken Burns, who directed the documentary “The Central Park Five,” renewed media interest in the settlement when he told HuffPost Live that the mayor-elect, had “agreed to settle this case.”
Further reporting by Colorlines showed that “agreement,” however, had come in the shape of an old campaign promise: “It’s long past time to heal these wounds,” DeBlasio said in a January 2013 statement. “… As a city, we have a moral obligation to right this injustice. It is in our collective interest—the wrongly accused, their families and the taxpayer—to settle this case and not let another year slip by without action.”
At present, says de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell, there is no timeline for the settlement.. Colorlines talked to Yusef Salaam, one of the five, about the long wait for closure, holding the mayor-elect accountable for his campaign promise, and what he’d say if he had a sit-down with de Blasio.
Have you been in touch with de Blasio’s transition team?
No. The information I have is similar to what you have. This came up when the mayoral candidates were campaigning, especially early on when people would ask, “Hey, what are you going to do about the Central Park Five [suit]? [Candidate] John Liu was actually the first. He said, “I know what’s going on. This is an atrocity.” He said it would be one of the first things he would do, that he was the one to actually settle this case. … Folks were going around to these mayoral candidates’ meetings, asking, “Where do you stand on the Central Park Five suit?” Every candidate but a few said “I would do what John Liu said he would do.”
So Ken Burns was repeating a campaign promise.
Yes. People are saying that Ken Burns jumped the gun, but what he was saying was what de Blasio had been saying all along, especially since the film was released.
How will you hold Mayor-Elect de Blasio accountable for his campaign promise?
I don’t know. I think that when we fought in the past we fought on another level. Politics are different and we’re seeing that now. For instance, I’ve never understood what it meant to be judged by jury of your peers. But the city said something really funny—somebody said [“The Central Park Five”’ film] is poisoning the jury pool. But the jury pool is we the people. If we the people have proper information then we can do our job. If they don’t have proper information, we do what happened in 1989. So the fight now, the struggle is going to be fought and won in the streets. People have power. They have to go to elected officials and be about the change, be about fixing this. We’ve been in this loop for 20 years. … Since the film, I really think we the people are that much more driven in wanting to make sure not just that there’s justice for the Central Park Five but that there will never be another. Yes, we’ve gotten something out our lives back, but we’re still fighting for that final piece. It’s crazy. People ask me all the time, “How do you keep moving after all of this.” Sometimes I feel like I’m having an out-of body experience.
If you met Mayor-Elect de Blasio what would you say to him?
I would remind him of the awesome power that he has, not just to fix the Central Park Five situation, but being the mayor with the greatest legacy. He represents New York, from his physical appearance—he’s a white guy with a black wife and biracial children. I would also congratulate him for winning the mayoralship [sic]. …I would tell him,”We can’t regain our youth, but I want to go back to believing that the system can work. I want to say, ‘Wow, this mayor really changed the police department. They really are about CPR—courtesy, professionalism and respect. I don’t have to worry about CPR because they sent me to the emergency room.’”