On this dayApr 19, 1989

Five Innocent Teens Arrested and Prosecuted for Rape in New York City

James Estrin, New York Times

On April 19, 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and beaten in New York City's Central Park. Police officers soon arrested a dozen young men, and eventually charged five teenage boys ranging from 14-16 years of age.

Police subjected Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray to hours of intense interrogation and ultimately extracted confessions. Each of them later recanted and insisted that he had been coerced into making false confessions despite having no involvement in the crime. Though there was no physical evidence to link them to the attack, all five boys were convicted of attempted murder and rape, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5-13 years.

From the time of their arrest, many observers and commentators readily believed that this group of teenage boys—four who were Black and one who was Latino—had committed the attack and deserved the harshest possible punishment. Donald Trump, then a well-known businessman in New York City, took out multiple full-page newspaper ads denouncing the Central Park attack, praising the power of hate, and demanding officials “bring back the death penalty” as a defense against “roving bands of wild criminals.” Trump went on to win election to the White House in 2016. 

The five teenagers convicted of the Central Park attack faced a presumption of guilt and dangerousness rooted in America’s history of slavery and lynching, which remains with us today and leaves minority communities particularly vulnerable to the unfair administration of criminal justice. At the time of the Central Park case, the idea of the young, non-white “super-predator” was gaining legitimacy among criminologists and policymakers. By stoking unsubstantiated fears of increasing violence and criminality among Black children, researchers built support for harsh proposals to abandon the juvenile system’s focus on rehabilitation and instead funnel younger and younger children into an adult system primarily focused on punishment. 

In 2002, another man confessed to the rape and beating committed in Central Park 13 years before, and DNA evidence confirmed his guilt. That same year, New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada granted the motions of defense attorneys and District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, vacating the convictions of the “Central Park Five.” Police detectives nevertheless continued to maintain that the defendants were accomplices in the assault, and refused to admit misconduct for their handling of the case. 

After their convictions were vacated, all five of the young men had completed their prison sentences but still faced the difficult journey of rebuilding their lives and recovering from spending years of their childhoods imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. They ultimately sued the city for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. “You all don't really understand what we went through,” Kevin Richardson said. “People called us animals, a wolf pack...It still hurts me emotionally.” New York City refused to settle the suits for over a decade, but in June 2014 agreed to pay the men $40 million in damages.

In 2019, 30 years after the five teens’ arrests, a Netflix miniseries dramatically depicted their ordeal and continuing struggle to recover, sparking renewed interest in the case’s history and its connection to injustice and racial bias still plaguing our courts and prisons. 

“I was shocked, because I had no idea that something like this could happen to anyone—especially people who were my age at the time,” Ethan Herisse, who played Yusef Salaam in the miniseries, said in an interview after completing production. “I’m at a different place now, where seeing that this thing happened and is still happening, even now—if I were going to be put anywhere near our system, I wouldn’t feel completely safe.”

To learn more about the wrongful arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray, watch Ava DuVernay's mini-series When They See Us.

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