Yusef Salaam, one of five men exonerated from the Central Park jogger case, was recently recognized during the Mass Incarceration Conference church service at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Here he talks about what justice looks like. (Video by Ryon Horne and Shelia Poole)

Yusef Salaam of Central Park Five: ‘Born with a target on our backs’

Yusef Salaam wiped away the tears as he watched a pre-screening of “When They See Us.”

The series tells the story of five teens — four African Americans and one Latino — who were wrongly accused and convicted of the brutal beating and rape of Trisha Meili, a white jogger, in New York’s Central Park on April 19, 1989. “When They See Us” would be seen around the world as a Netflix miniseries.

Despite the five men being fully exonerated of the crime, 30 years later the experience still traumatizes him.

Now, Salaam, one of the so-called Central Park Five, wants the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to reopen decades of sex abuse cases it handled.

The teens, ranging in age from 14 to 16, served between five and 13 years behind bars. Salaam was 15 when arrested.

“The Central Park Five case is a glaring example of misuse of power and what corruption looks like,” said Salaam, 45, an author and motivational speaker, and father of 10 who now lives in metro Atlanta. “We can be certain that this is not the first time and it won’t be the last. All those cases that have been adjudicated afterwards have to be reexamined.”

The racially charged case divided a city and a nation. Real estate developer Donald Trump, who years later would become president, took out full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for a return of the death penalty. Former White House adviser and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan said the oldest teen should be hanged and the others horsewhipped. The teens found supporters in Al Sharpton, the New York Amsterdam News and many community and civil rights groups.

The five — Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray — long maintained their innocence and said their taped confessions were coerced. They were later exonerated after Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer, confessed to the crime and his DNA matched evidence found at the scene.

Prosecutors and police were accused of going on an aggressive witch hunt and ignoring evidence.

>> RELATED: Michael B. Jordan presents Central Park 5 with courage award

Linda Fairstein, then assistant district attorney, was head of the Manhattan D.A. sex crimes unit and Elizabeth Lederer served as lead prosecutor during the Central Park case.

Fairstein went on to become a bestselling author with her most recent book, “Blood Oath,” released in March.

Since the airing of the Netflix series, both women have come under increased fire.

Fairstein and her publisher have parted ways.

Lederer recently resigned as a professor from Columbia Law School after students protested.

There have been other calls for a review of cases.

District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a June 5 letter to Jumaane Williams of the Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York that what happened to the Central Park Five was “a profound injustice,” but he declined to reopen “thousands of cases prosecuted by the Manhattan D.A. Sex Crimes Unit between 1976 and 2002” and he declined to fire Lederer.

Instead, he asked Williams’ help in spreading word about the office’s Conviction Integrity Program.

Yusef Salaam and artist Tina Dunkley share a moment at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. The two realized they attended the same high school in Harlem, N.Y., though not at the same time.
Photo: RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

“I think when we see these cases, especially wrongful convictions, it does kind of beg the question just how many of these cases have happened over time,” said Carl Suddler, author of “Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York” and professor of history, who will join the faculty at Emory University this fall. “In the United States, we do not have a justice system, we have a legal system. We have a system that followed the letter of the law, not necessarily fairness.”

Salaam, Santana and author and activist Michelle Alexander will be among speakers during a series of events on the criminal justice system at Ebenezer Baptist Church through Wednesday.

The Central Park Five were rechristened “The Exonerated Five” by Oprah Winfrey after the airing of “When They See Us,” which was directed by Ava DuVernay.

During their trials, they were called a wolf pack, animals and monsters.

It put strains on their families. “They were also vilified,” Salaam said.

>> READ | Some of Central Park Five, T.I., Ebenezer pastor take part in criminal justice reform effort

After his release, Salaam found a box of hate letters that had been mailed to his mother, one threatening to find him even if it took 20 or 30 years.

While incarcerated, Salaam, who dreamed of being an architect, missed much of his youth. He missed his prom. He missed holidays with his family.

Before being arrested, Salaam was a typical teen. He loved to draw, ride his bike and go skateboarding.

He jokes that while he wore a high-top hair style, it wasn’t as big as the one shown in the series.

“I came home to the indelible scar of being labeled a rapist,” said Salaam. “I would still have that indelible scar on me. The only folks who would have known I was innocent would have been the folks who supported me, who stood by me, who respected me and who knew me. The rest of the world would have said these guys are rapists. I always think about that.”

Yusef Salaam (left) and Raymond Santana, two of the the infamous Central Park Five case who were wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a woman jogger in Central Park in 1989, are recognized during the Mass Incarceration Conference church service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday, June 17, 2019, in Atlanta.
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

The series accurately depicts much of what the teens and their families experienced. Salaam said other than Wise, he didn’t know the other teens.

And that made it easier for them to be divided.

He extends his right hand and one-by-one bends back a finger, illustrating how they could be coerced into accusing each other of the crime. Then he balls up his fist to show strength in unity.

Now, he says, the men have formed what he calls a “sacred brotherhood.”

Before the release of the Netflix series, Salaam and three of the other men joined DuVernay in Los Angeles for a pre-screening. McCray was unable to attend because of the death of his mother.

In the darkened room, Salaam said he fought back tears, until he heard others around him begin to sniffle.

By the final episode, everyone in the room was “wailing.” There was hugging and more tears.

What may come as a surprise, Salaam said, is that they didn’t necessarily know one another’s full stories and the effects on their families on the outside.

They were distressed to learn what Wise, the oldest, endured after being sent to an adult facility. He was beaten by other inmates and mentally abused.

“We were all going through hell, but he was going through hell,” Salaam said. “It was an unending, uninterrupted, unrelenting travesty and terrorism. All of that stuff was happening to him.”

Wise went up for parole several times and was denied when he would not admit guilt.

Ironically, it was an inmate who served time with Wise who eventually confessed.

“He (Wise) became the magic that freed us and Korey wasn’t even on the list.”

In fact, Salaam said he felt guilty about Wise’s incarceration and has apologized. Wise’s involvement began when he was asked by a police officer if he wanted to go to the station with his friend Salaam, who was being questioned in the case. Wise agreed, thinking he was just providing support and would be returned home.

>> MORE | Actor Michael B. Jordan presents Central Park 5 with courage award

“It was a necessary thing for me to apologize because I wanted him to know that I acknowledged that that part of hell he had gone through was because he was just hanging out with his friend.” He said the others didn’t even know where Wise was locked up or had no idea of the horror he experienced.

He said Wise accepted his apology and they remain close friends.

He said his children have seen part of the series, but he didn’t rush them. He wanted them to see it in their own time.

He also wanted to make sure they saw the hero side of the story as well as the painful side.

The case took its toll on his family as well.

Not only was he seen as a pariah, but so were his mother, sister, brother and aunt.

He said, “They also had that negative stain that the system put on them as a result of this terror.”

While he was in prison physically, “they were in prison mentally. That is something that can never be erased. They are going through life being known as the sister or brother or mother of someone who is seen as the scum of the earth.”

Yusef Salaam, member of the Central Park Five, speaks at a news conference highlighting criminal justice reform on October 15, 2016 in New York City.
Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images for TIDAL

“The major crime that was committed was that we were born with a target on our backs, tattooed on our skin because of the color of our skin,” Salaam said. “The series puts what it means to be black in America in a new space.”

Younger people now know their stories, and he hopes it will galvanize them to take action. People reach out to him or walk up to him on the street and apologize for what they experienced.

Even today, Salaam remains vigilant. He doesn’t like to say where his family lives. He’s concerned about his family’s safety. In today’s racially divided climate, there are still those who think they are guilty. They received an initial $41 million settlement, which some people believe they didn’t deserve.

He looks at cases of police brutality such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both killed by police officers, and wonders what has changed.

“The system didn’t do us right. They let us down.”

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