For the group of Black and Latino teens wrongly convicted of rape nearly 30 years ago, the memorable milestones marking young adulthood, like getting dapper for prom or pulling up in your first car, were snatched away.
So, a local Bronx school saw to it that the men had a chance to experience one special occasion they missed out on — their high school graduation.
On Monday, June 26, three of the famously dubbed Central Park Five — Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana — walked across the stage to receive their honorary diplomas from Bronx Preparatory Academy, where they stood among nearly 60 Bronx Prep students also wearing shiny blue robes, The New York Times reported.
The three men missed their own graduations after they were wrongfully convicted in the brutal rape and assault of a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989. They were released from prison in 2002 after another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. By that time, the men had spent seven to 13 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.
Richardson, Salaam and Santana, who are now in their 40s, were able to earn their GEDs and associate degrees while in jail but were still grateful for the opportunity to experience the milestone they’d missed out on so many years ago.
“Even though we were not able to go back and right the wrong of not getting our high school diplomas outside, here we are being honored in such a way in front of our family and friends,” Salaam said during his keynote address. “This is a blessing.”
The idea for the special ceremony came about after Bronx Prep teacher Marie Colucci showed her class a documentary on the Central Park Five to teach students about the criminal justice system, The New York Times reported. After viewing the film, Colucci’s students asked to meet the men they had just learned about, prompting Richardson to make a visit to the class.
Cassius Gil, the school’s assistant principal, wanted to do something even more special, however, prompting the idea for the graduation.
“It’s kind of emotional,” Santana said at the ceremony. “When we went to prison, this was taken away from us. … It was something we never got to experience. You felt like you were being robbed, and we’ve finally found redemption.”
Antron McCray and Khary Wise, the two other men of the Central Park Five, were not present at Monday’s ceremony. Gil said they received their honorary diplomas via mail.
“Thank you,” Salaam said after accepting his diploma alongside his “brothers through fire.”
“We are honored. We are hopeful. We are blessed. And we accept.”