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‘An American Tragedy’: Judge Overturns Conviction of Forgotten Central Park Defendant

A sixth man that was wrongfully arrested for the 1989 rape and robbery of a New York jogger in Central Park has been exonerated.

Kevin Lopez, now 48, was 15 years old when he accepted a plea deal for robbery charges to avoid the more serious rape charge. He spent nearly four years in prison. A New York judge threw out his conviction on July 25, about 20 years after his co-defendants had their convictions overturned.

“We talk about the Central Park Five, the Exonerated Five, but there were six people on that indictment,” said Manhattan district attorney Alvin L. Bragg.

An American Tragedy': Judge Overturns Conviction of Forgotten Central Park Defendant
Steven Lopez was wrongfully arrested for the 1989 rape and robbery of Central Park jogger Trisha Meili. (Photo: YouTube: CBS New York)

The Black and Hispanic teenagers, 14 and 16 years old, were coerced into blaming the rape and robbery of 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili on each other. According to reports, Lopez was indicted for Meili’s rape and robbery and the robbery of a male jogger.

Reports show police held Lopez in a cell for about 20 hours before he was interrogated. His parents were present, but they did not speak English. There were no translators, according to reports. A detective wrote Lopez’s statement, which he and his father signed, placing him on the scene.

Still, Lopez denied being involved in Meili’s assault, but the other teenagers’ confessions connected him to the crime. There was no physical evidence linking him to the robbery of the male jogger. Investigators found a hair on Lopez’s clothing belonging to Meili, but authorities later discovered that the results were unreliable.

Ten years after Lopez’s conviction, Matias Reyes, a man serving time for murder and rape, confessed to being Meili’s only attacker. DNA evidence confirmed his claims. The case rocked the nation and increased racial tensions in New York. About 10 teenagers were arrested the night of the crime. The group was used as poster children for youth delinquency.

“I believe what happened to you was an American tragedy,” said Lopez’s attorney, Eric S. Renfroe, addressing his client directly during the proceeding. “It is truly painful to see how this system failed you.”

The five other teenagers received a $41 million settlement from New York City in 2014. Lopez’s wrongful conviction was not publicized as much as the others. He was not in the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five” or Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix drama “When They See Us.”

Terri S. Rosenblatt, an attorney who leads Bragg’s conviction review unit that worked on Lopez’s case, said his exoneration exemplifies an injustice that happens too often.

“We talk about wrongful trial convictions a lot, but there can be guilty pleas that are wrongful too,” Rosenblatt said.

After the July 25 hearing, Renfroe said his client felt a range of emotions. He had to leave the courtroom.

“I’m hoping today, at the very least, (Lopez feels) vindicated,” he said. “I think there were a lot of awful things that were said about him that I know were not true at the time they were said.”

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