Yusef Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five, formerly known as the Central Park Five, discussed his legal case on Monday with Judge John H. England, Jr. (’74) in the Bedsole Moot Court Room.
On April 19, 1989, a young woman was raped and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. Five boys — four black and one Latino — were tried and convicted of the crime. They became known collectively as the Central Park Five.
Looking back on the case, Salaam said the evidence didn’t point to five boys. He and others didn’t have a drop of blood on them. There was no skin under the woman’s fingernails that linked them to the crime. A photo that was introduced into evidence showed “a single dragline.” If several people had been dragging the woman, other parts of the scene would have been disturbed, he said.
“I think — and I truly think — they knew that they had the wrong people. And I don’t think it mattered,” he said. Prosecutors and others were trying to quickly ensure the public that the city was safe and protecting their careers, he said.
The convictions of the men were vacated in 2002 after another man who was in prison for similar crimes confessed to the attack. That man’s DNA matched evidence from the crime scene. The exonerated men served between seven and 13 years for crimes they did not commit. In 2003, they sued the city for their wrongful convictions. In 2014, the city settled the case and agreed to pay them a total of $41 million.
Since his release, Salaam has been committed to advocating and educating people on the issues of false confessions, police brutality and misconduct, press ethics and bias, race and law, and the disparities in America’s criminal justice system. In 2013, documentarians Ken and Sarah Burns released the documentary “The Central Park Five,” which told the event from the perspective of Salaam and his cohorts.
Salaam was awarded an honorary doctorate that same year and received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 from then-President Barack Obama. He was appointed to the board of the Innocence Project in 2018. He released a Netflix feature limited series called “When They See Us” based on the true story of the Central Park Five with Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro in May 2019.
In addition to his talk at the Law School, Salaam is scheduled to deliver the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lecture at 7:30 p.m. Monday, January 27 in the Ferguson Center Ballroom. The event is free and open to the public.