When 14-year-old Kevin Richardson entered New York’s Central Park on a spring evening in 1989, he had childish worries.
“Most of all, I was afraid to break the curfew,” Richardson said. “I had no idea I was about to go to jail.”
But an eighth-grader was arrested on the way home that night, and along with four other black and Hispanic teenagers was faced with a nightmarish journey through the criminal justice system.
Young people, known as the Five in Central Park, have been in custody day after day, year after year, for a heinous crime they did not commit.
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“At one time I didn’t want to talk about it,” said Richardson, who was falsely accused of beating and raping a running woman.
“But the world needs to know about these cases,” he said.
Richardson and his friend from Central Park Five, Corey Wise, spoke of their injustice Monday night during an emotional speech hosted by the Burlington County Attorney’s Office to mark Black History Month.
“We told them we were innocent,” said Richardson, the youngest participant in Central Park Five.
“Of course, because of the way we looked, we were in a hurry with the trial,” he said.
Introducing the speakers at the virtual event, Berlington County Attorney Scott Coffin noted that the teens never came close to justice as they were pushed through police stations, courtrooms and detention centers.
Instead, Coffin said, young people were “manipulated and forced to confess to certain aspects of the crime or involve others in it.”
They withdrew their confessions after the indictment and insisted on their innocence – “even renouncing the possibility of being released early if they simply confessed to the crime,” Kofina continued.
But despite discrepancies in their accounts and a lack of physical evidence linking them to the attack, the teens were convicted of various crimes.
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The outcome of the case “has already been signed and delivered to a large extent,” said Richardson, who spent six years and eight months in a juvenile detention center.
After the arrest, Richardson said, his mother, a Virginia native, “thought she was living in the Jim Crow era again … She felt the KKK would come to pick up her son and others.”
However, the police took the five from Central Park from their families.
Richardson said he was arrested on his way home from the park, where groups of young people attacked and robbed people that night.
He joined several people on a nearby street when police ordered them to freeze.
Richardson took off.
“Even if you are innocent, when you see the police, people try to run away. I followed this example, ”Richardson explained. He said the harassing officer lost consciousness and woke up in handcuffs, “not knowing what had just happened to me.”
Wise said he was questioned the next day when he went to the police station to clear the name of another suspect.
“I went down there to protect my dude,” said Wise, who has served the longest sentence – nearly 14 years in an adult prison – because he was 16 at the time of the crime.
Detectives interrogated the teenagers “for hours on end”, – said Nigel Kiroz from t.the project of innocence, a nonprofit legal services organization that worked to clear the names of Richardson, Wise, Anthron McCray, Yousef Salam, and Raymond Santana.
“They were told, ‘If you say that, you can go home,'” Kiroz said. “These are all methods used to get these false confessions or confessions, and they occur in about one-third of the illegal convictions we see in the Innocence project.
“They played this good and bad cop procedure, which they do so skillfully,” Richardson asked, which lasted for three days.
“They have a way to put a little pressure on you, and that was physically, mentally and all,” he said.
Responding to Coffin’s question, Richardson said he was unaware of his right to have a lawyer, although this would have been told to him while reading his rights to Miranda.
“For me, I didn’t even know who Miranda was,” he continued. “When they read Miranda’s rights, I thought she was the girl I went to school with.”
“We were so young and naive,” he said.
The teenagers came out of the police station and noticed that a media storm had broken out over them.
“We were shocked,” said Richardson, who claimed that the false accounts circulated by law enforcement and the media “brainwashed the public.”
He argued that the images in the courtroom from the teen hearings depict them as baboons and gorillas.
The public outcry was partly prompted by Donald Trump, who was then a celebrity developer in Manhattan. Kiroz noted that Trump placed an ad in the newspaper calling for the resumption of the death penalty after the attack in Central Park.
Kofina said the teens were partly victims of the circumstances, believing police had felt “tremendous pressure” to uncover a widely publicized attack during the rise in crime.
“Society – the media and the public – have condemned these young people in the same way as the criminal justice system, and they have not even waited for trial. Everyone wanted a scapegoat, ”the prosecutor said.
But the Central Park Five also fell victim to a system that devalued them, Kofin noted.
“These five young people were seen as consumables, and it’s a real horror of the case against them,” he said. “No one really thought about it or cared about whether they were innocent.”
The five successfully sued to have their convictions lifted after New York man Matthias Reyes confessed to the 2001 Central Park assault.
Reyes, who is convicted of rape, robbery and murder, told investigators he acted alone in attacking the runner.
A new investigation linked Reyes’ DNA to DNA evidence found at the crime scene in April 1989. Reyes also provided information that only an attacker could have known, according to a 2003 civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of the men and their parents.
The lawsuit alleges that police and prosecutors ignored Reyes in the runner’s investigation, even though he was suspected of sexual assault in Central Park two days earlier.
Instead, according to the lawsuit, the teens were targeted, despite confessions that differed on key issues – such as who launched the attack, who hit the woman and who raped the victim.
For example, it noted: “Richardson allegedly said that the jogger’s bra was torn, but in fact it was still on her when she was found.”
None of the teens described exactly where the attack took place, and although the runner had heavy blood, there was no evidence of blood regarding the young men, the lawsuit said.
The victim, who was found unconscious in a wooded area about 40 feet from her treadmill, did not remember the incident.
In a statement Monday, Wise noted that Reyes was looking for him when they were in the same prison.
“You’re still here. You’re still keeping your innocence,” Reyes said, according to Wise.
Wise said the brief conversation at the time seemed insignificant because he did not know Reyes and the man had not yet confessed to attacking the runner.
Now he sees more meaning in it.
“I took it as he told me he was sorry,” Wise said of Reyes.
The civil rights lawsuit also noted that a police commission set up to investigate the case in 2002 found no violations by police officers – and concluded that five Central Park residents were guilty of assaulting a runner.
The lawsuit was settled with payments from the city of New York and the state of New York about $ 45 million.
“It doesn’t cancel out what we’ve been through,” Richardson said of the settlement. “We had to accept that and go on with our lives.”
Richardson, who travels the country, talking to students and others about his experience, urged people facing challenges to remain resilient.
“Keep going forward,” he said.
“Try to keep that smile on your face,” said Wise, who blinked tears during some of his remarks. “Enjoy life.”
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Richardson also offered a message to men and women who have never apologized for harming the lives of teenagers.
“You tried to destroy us, you tried to dehumanize us,” he said. “But we’re still here.”
Richardson also spoke to law enforcement officers who watched his presentation, urging them to “change the whole dynamic.”
“Just be true because we have suffered from what we have gone through… If you are going to come and serve, you have to serve and be respectful,” he continued.
“What we went through was unnecessary, and we need to change that.”
Coffin also focused on “the great responsibility we have in law enforcement to serve justice.
“It’s not for the sake of arrest; it is not for clarifying cases. Do your best to ensure that justice happens in every case. ”
The prosecutor scheduled the presentation after watching the Netflix film about the Central Park Five “When They See Us”, as well as Ken Burns’ documentary on the case.
He said Richardson and Wise “are a warning not about themselves but about us.
“We need to hear their story to remind ourselves to never rush to condemnation,” Kofina said.
Richardson suggested that in the American justice system the goal has not yet been achieved.
“I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist, and we have a long way to go,” he said. “The struggle continues and we must fight for our greater good.”
Jim Walsh covers state security, economic development and other articles for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal.
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