The so-called “Central Park Five”—the five young Black and Hispanic men wrongfully convicted of raping and brutally assaulting a jogger in Central Park in 1989—agreed to a settlement with the city of New York for $40 million, meaning each of them will get $1 million for every year they spent in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.
The settlement, which was first reported yesterday by the New York Times, brings a measure of closure to a case that has hovered over the city for the last 25 years.
Initially, the case served as an ugly symbol of rampant crime and out-of-control urban youths in the 1980s. Then when it was proven by DNA evidence that the jogger Trisha Meili—a 28-year-old investment banker—had actually been assaulted by murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes, it became an illustration of police and prosecutorial misconduct, and the difficulty for young men of color to be treated fairly.
The young men—Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam—maintained their innocence throughout the ordeal, claiming police railroaded them into making incriminating statements against themselves and each other.
At the time, the city’s newspapers howled for arrests, then-Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century,” and real-estate mogul Donald Trump took out ads calling for the return of the death penalty. Not many wanted to hear the story of the young men.
Rev. Al Sharpton, who suffered a heap of abuse for standing by them after they were arrested, yesterday told the New York Daily News, “We took a lot of abuse. The toll on these men and their supporters was terrible. I want to know we have things in place so that this doesn’t happen again.”
“I’m happy for them, but you know… money doesn’t give them those years back. It doesn’t give them their youth back,” Sharpton added.
The settlement still must be approved by the city comptroller and a federal judge. If it is approved, the amount for Kharey Wise — who spent 13 years in prison over the case — will amount to the largest settlement for a wrongful conviction case in New York City history.
While former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought the wrongful conviction lawsuit brought by the men, Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on a promise to stop fighting and settle up with them. De Blasio pledged to meet a “moral obligation to right this injustice.”
“Tonight, I see five young boys resting proudly on the shoulders of five grown men. A long time coming my friends,” Ken Burns, who co-directed the compelling 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five,” tweeted after the announcement.
Sen. Bill Perkins, who at the time of the case was president of the tenants’ association at Schomburg Plaza where three of the Central Park Five members lived, told the Daily News the settlement brought tears to his eyes.
“This chapter of our racist history needs to be closed and never repeated again,” Perkins said. “Hopefully this will never happen to anybody ever again.”