“The [central park five] case is still pertinent,” says Jelani Cobb, staff writer at The New Yorker and professor of journalism at Columbia. “The built-in inequalities and the unfairness of the criminal justice system, the racial disparities of the criminal justice system—all of the things that the case highlighted have become more prominent concerns in the three decades that have intervened.” The notorious 1989 case may have helped bring certain injustices to public knowledge, but according to journalists, researchers, psychologists, former detectives, and people who have been wrongly imprisoned, we’ve failed to rectify them.
Unfortunately, Raymond Santana Jr., Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, and Kevin Richardson are not the only people who have been coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit—and forced confessions are not a phenomenon of the past. Men, women, and children alike continue to suffer the effects of institutional racism and the systemic flaws in our system of due process. Even 30 years later, it’s essential to share the stories of these five innocent men if we want to prevent their case from happening again.
Jelani Cobb Staff writer at The New Yorker and Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University
Natalie Byfield Former New York Daily News reporter and author of Savage Portrayals: Race, Media, and the Central Park Jogger Story
Rembert Browne Writer and journalist formerly at Grantland and New York magazine
Saul Kassin Professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Stephanie Madon Professor of psychology at Iowa State University
Max Guyll Professor of psychology at Iowa State University
Dr. Courtney Cogburn Assistant professor of social work at Columbia University
Dr. Richard Leo Professor of law and psychology at University San Francisco School of Law
Rebecca Brown Director of policy at the Innocence Project
James Trainum Former homicide detective and author of How the Police Generate False Confessions: An Inside Look at the Interrogation Room
Marissa Bluestine Executive director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project
Matthew Jones Homicide detective in Tempe, Arizona
Raymond Santana Jr. Central Park Five
Yusef Salaam Central Park Five
Korey Wise Central Park Five
Antron McCray Central Park Five
Kevin Richardson Central Park Five
At first, there was nothing special about that night—April 19, 1989—when Raymond Santana Jr., Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, and Kevin Richardson tagged along with a group of kids who walked into Central Park. Some of them were good friends; some hardly knew the others, or had only seen one another in passing at Schomburg Plaza, a mixed-income apartment complex on Fifth Avenue and 110th Street.
Members of the larger group they joined later admitted to demanding money from passersby in the park, as well as throwing rocks and hitting people. But none of them had any knowledge about the rape of Trisha Meili, a female jogger whose broken body was found, later that night, about half a mile southeast from where the teens had been. Over the next two days, each of the five were arrested as part of a police dragnet of black and Latino youths, who were held for as long as 27 hours while being subjected to questioning. The five teens eventually spent between five and 13 years in prison for a crime none of them even saw, let alone committed.
It would be over a decade before the truth would align with the charges against the five boys. But what happened that April night and in the days that followed continues to shed light on the flaws in how criminal investigations are conducted and how due process is administered. Warped by racism and discrimination, these systems can be manipulated and used to destroy innocent people’s lives.
Antron McCray was raised in Harlem by his mother Linda and his stepfather Bobby. He was a considerate, athletic 15-year-old with a love of baseball (he played shortstop on a neighborhood team) when his life was forever changed on April 19th, 1989. That was the night McCray was brought in for questioning after a jogger was raped and severely assaulted in Central Park. Along with four other boys of color, he was tried and wrongfully convicted, ultimately serving six years in state prison. McCray was exonerated of all charges in 2002 following the discovery of the real culprit by both confession and DNA evidence. Following his exoneration, McCray left New York and set out to forge a new life. Now married with six children, he says he has not looked back. Though he has cultivated his personal privacy, McCray looks forward to the release of When They See Us when audiences will have a chance to see his story because, as he says, “what happened to us is still happening too often today.”
In 1989, Kevin Richardson was just 14 years old and attending Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Junior High—where he was known for his trumpet playing, hip-hop dancing and basketball skills (his dream was to one day play for Syracuse University)—when he was brought in for questioning in connection with the rape and severe assault of a jogger in Central Park. Richardson became one of five boys of color who were accused, tried and wrongfully convicted in a sensationalized case that rocked the nation. He served seven years in prison. In 2002, Richardson and the four others were exonerated, with all charges vacated, following the discovery of the real culprit by both confession and DNA evidence. Today, at age 44, Richardson is raising two young children with his wife—and says he hopes that telling his own story will help create a more just world for his kids and the next generation.
Korey Wise was 16 years old when he voluntarily went to the police station to support his friend Yusef Salaam after Salaam was brought in for questioning in connection with a rape and severe assault in Central Park. Forty-two hours later, Wise was coerced into a false confession that conflicted glaringly with the facts of the case. Nevertheless, he and four other boys of color were tried and wrongfully convicted of multiple crimes. Wise was the only one of the five to be tried and sentenced as an adult. Of the five, he also spent the most time in prison, approximately 14 years in adult facilities, an experience he says had an unalterable impact on his life but also inspired his focus on positivity today. Wise was still serving his sentence at Auburn Correctional Facility when he had a chance encounter with Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer who confessed to having committed the crime alone. Following his confession, DNA evidence proved that Reyes was the sole rapist and Wise was fully exonerated with the four others in 2002. Still living in New York today, Wise has continued to speak out on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. He recently founded the Korey Wise Innocence Project at the University of Colorado.
Raymond Santana Jr. was born in Harlem, New York and showed an aptitude for the arts as a teenager. At the age of 14, while being raised by his then-single father Raymond Santana Sr., his future was abruptly changed when he was brought in for questioning regarding the case of a jogger raped and severely assaulted in Central Park. Coerced into a false confession, he was wrongfully convicted along with four other boys of color. Santana ultimately spent almost seven years incarcerated for the jogger case. In 2002, Santana and the others were all fully exonerated, and their charges vacated, after the crime’s true culprit was discovered both by confession and DNA evidence. Today, Santana lives in Atlanta and is raising a teenage daughter. Now creatively thriving, he recently started a skyrocketing fashion label, Park Madison NYC, named after the streets where he grew up. He says he hopes When They See Us will broaden the perspective on the Central Park case, show how the five exonerated men defied the odds against them and inspire new ideas to improve the justice system.
On April 19, 1989, a young woman in the prime of her life was brutally 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 in a frenzied case that rocked the city. They became known collectively as “The Central Park Five.” Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after spending between seven and 13 years of their lives behind bars. The unidentified DNA in the Central Park Jogger Case, unlinked to any of the five, had finally met its owner, a convicted murderer and serial rapist who confessed. The convictions of the boys, now men, were overturned and they were exonerated. One of those boys, Yusef Salaam, was just 15 years old when his life was upended and changed forever. Since his release, Yusef has committed himself 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 of this travesty from the perspective of Yusef and his cohorts. In 2014, The Central Park Five received a multi-million dollar settlement from the city of New York for its grievous injustice against them. Yusef was awarded an Honorary Doctorate that same year and received the President’s Life Time Achievement Award in 2016 from President Barack Obama. He was appointed to the board of the Innocence Project in 2018, and most recently collaborated with Ava DuVernay on the Netflix limited series, When They See Us.
Just after 10 p.m. on April 19th, police were cruising around the north side of Central Park, picking up teenagers who they suspected of muggings in the park that night. They had already begun releasing them when word came in of the rape of Trisha Meili. What happened next was a series of institutional disgraces—all considered by the detectives to be perfectly acceptable—that we’re still reckoning with today. And at the heart of those disgraces were the coercive, manipulative interrogation tactics that led the boys to believe that their only chance at being set free was making a confession.
84 Percent of false confessions are made after interrogations of six hours or more.
Since 1969, a supreme court ruling states that lying to suspects is constitutional.
“It’s counterintuitive to most that a person could wrongfully confess to a crime he or she did not commit, particularly one as serious as rape or murder,” says Rebecca Brown, policy director of the Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992 to fight wrongful convictions.
Yet increasing evidence shows that false confessions happen all the time. Of the nation’s 365 wrongful convictions since overturned by DNA evidence, says Brown, 28 percent involved some form of false confession. Experts say that teenagers and those with cognitive impairments or mental health problems are particularly susceptible to being coerced or convinced into false confessions.
There’s also evidence that interrogation techniques target innocent people disproportionately by race. A 2017 study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that innocent African Americans are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people—strongly implying that police are pressuring more African Americans into falsely confessing.
As the young men who would become known as the Central Park Five found out, confessions are typically just the end of a long, grueling process of interrogation conducted by police detectives. The process in use by most police departments today has its origins in the Reid Technique, a system devised in the 1940s that employs psychological manipulation to steer suspects toward confession.
Saul Kassin, a John Jay College psychology professor who has studied interrogation techniques for more than three decades, says that juries see confessions as the gold standard of evidence. But it’s actually not that hard to make people confess to things they didn’t do—or even, in some cases, to make them start believing it.
Interrogations in the U.S., he explains, typically begin with a “pre-interrogation interview,” whose purpose is to analyze posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and other nonverbal cues to determine whether a suspect is probably guilty. “They claim that they can train people up to an 85 percent to 90 percent level of accuracy using these techniques,” he says. “There is a boatload of research that they can’t do it. They say they can, but they can’t.”
The interrogation itself will then begin with what’s called positive confrontation, explains Kassin. “‘We know you did it, don’t lie.’ In fact, if the suspect responds to that accusation with a denial or an objection or with a proclamation of innocence, the interrogator is literally instructed to put their hand in his face and stop them in mid-sentence. Don’t let him get the words ‘I didn’t do it’ out.”
Threats that things will go badly if suspects don’t cooperate are alternated with intimations that they can avoid trouble if they agree to make a statement—these tactics are dubbed “maximization” and “minimization” by researchers, but familiar to most people as the good cop-bad cop routine. In the Central Park interrogations, for example, a detective pointed to a scratch on Kevin’s left cheek; when Kevin explained he’d gotten it the night before when an officer had tackled him during his arrest, the detective said that he would call that officer, and if he didn’t confirm the story, Kevin would have a problem. The blemish was later incorporated into Kevin’s fabricated confession, where he described getting scratched during the rape he did not commit.
Detectives will often then provide details of the crime to suspects—who may end up repeating them in their confessions, making them seem more convincing to juries. It’s even legal for police to outright lie about evidence in order to gain a confession. One detective did this in his interrogation of Yusef Salaam, telling him that “we have fingerprints on the jogger’s pants” and if they matched his prints, “you’re going down for rape.” In fact, there were no readable prints on the jogger’s pants; but not knowing that, Yusef panicked, telling McKenna, “I was there but I didn’t rape her.”
Add in that interrogators can hold suspects indefinitely, and it becomes more understandable that a person under interrogation will break down and agree to whatever police ask. Stephanie Madon, an Iowa State psychology professor who has studied false confessions, notes that while interrogation-training manuals say you should be able to get a confession within about four hours, the average length of interrogations that led to DNA-exonerated false confessors was a staggering 16 hours. Madon’s research partner Max Guyll explains, “An innocent person can just feel trapped.”
“Police interrogation, as practiced in North America, is specifically designed to break down suspects’ resistance and get a confession,” concludes Madon.
Adds Kassin, “A hundred-plus years of basic psychology tells us that when you mislead people about reality, you can change people’s perceptions, you can change their memories, you can change their beliefs. The fact that it produces false confessions would surprise no psychologist. So for the courts to allow police to lie about evidence, that is so out of step with basic science, it’s unacceptable.”
In 2002, Korey Wise was the last of the Central Park Five still imprisoned; while the others went to juvenile detention facilities, he was tried as an adult and eventually sent to Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York. That year, he received a call from his mother, who had news: A fellow Auburn inmate, Matias Reyes, who had been convicted of a series of rapes in 1988 and 1989, had confessed to the jogger attack. DNA testing showed that Reyes was telling the truth. After 13 years, Wise and the other four teenagers were fully exonerated. In 2014, after an 11-year court battle, the five men settled a civil suit against the city of New York for $41 million.
But the factors that allowed the Central Park Five to be wrongfully vilified, charged, and imprisoned remain rooted in our criminal justice system, media environment, and society at large. The legacy of the case is, in part, the fundamental flaws in criminal justice and interrogation standards that it brought to light. But activists, scholars, and experts worry that some still turn a blind eye to the lessons it should have taught us.
Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.
The Central Park Five case helped demonstrate that in American police culture, presumption of guilt often overrides the pursuit of the truth.
“We know the Central Park Five because there was a spotlight on that particular case. But there had been advocates, even then, of criminal justice reform who were aware that people were often denied due process. There was no real concern with due process anywhere in that case, from police who make presumptions from the early hours of the case, early minutes of the case, to prosecutors, to elected officials, to the overwhelming majority of the media. There is no presumption of innocence that comes to the fore there.”
“When a person goes to the police academy, maybe he's thinking, ‘I just want to uphold the law.’ Then he goes to that academy and they tell him, ‘This is the blue wall of silence. This is the gang. You have to stand on this side. It doesn't matter.’ Maybe his experiences on the job help to shape his mind and he starts to separate himself from the public. He starts to disconnect from the people that's in the community.”
“The detectives just saw a lottery ticket and they ran with it.”
“The accusatory approach is marketed as a way to increase your closure rate [the rate at which detectives close cases]. They will interrogate somebody, pressure them, and if they don't break, they’ll move on to somebody else. If they do break, it’s like, ‘Thank God, I’ve avoided having to do all this extra work. I can now move on to the next case.’”
“Every time you put an innocent person in prison for a crime they didn’t do, that guilty person is still out there. If you look at the Central Park Five, they were prosecuting those five teenagers for a crime they didn’t do. Well, Matias Reyes, who actually did the crime, raped three more women because New York was prosecuting the wrong people. He murdered a pregnant woman. Those are the societal consequences of targeting innocent people.”
The standard Reid technique—which relies heavily on psychological manipulation—can compound police officers’ confirmation bias.
“They reached into a reality like you’re just a slave, you better do our bidding or we will make hell for you. This is how they got Antron's dad to turn. It was so painful to see that because now, as a father, this is one of the challenges that we have. How do we protect our children knowing what we know, going through the experience that we've gone through? How do we make sure our children don't go through this kind of thing?”
“We built a narrative around what whiteness means and what blackness means. I think that plays out in encounters with police officers: Pull your pants up, speak more clearly, don't talk back, be less of yourself in some ways, in order to minimize the threat being perceived by this person. That won’t work. That won’t be sufficient to actually minimize your threat. But there is this idea that if I’m less of myself, if I shrink, if I’m quieter, if I’m smaller in various ways, both physically and theoretically, I won’t be perceived as much of a threat. Just tell them what they want to hear, be who they want you to be, so that you cannot be assaulted, so that you can get the job, so that you can get promoted, so that you can be treated nicely. I think it translates across the board about who and what is acceptable.”
Several nations have begun moving away from accusatory interrogations, with the United Kingdom introducing a method called PEACE that focuses on fact-finding instead of getting confessions.
“It happened in the 1980s, in response to a series of false confession cases. They brought together scientists and practitioners, and wholesale changed the process of interrogation. They went from an American-style confrontational approach to an investigative interviewing approach. They required on the spot that all interrogations be recorded. The sky hasn't fallen, and the system has moved on and crime rates haven't increased.”
“Do I think that there's some movement to begin to address [the flaws of standard interrogation procedures]? Yes. Do I believe that it's happening at the pace that it needs to? Absolutely not.”
But even if interrogation rooms and the police system are reformed, the Central Park Five case shows how biases on a broader scale play a role in premature condemnations. Media coverage of the case immediately cast the boys as villains. Out of more than 3,000 reported rapes that took place in New York City in 1989, only one became a daily staple on newspaper front pages, with the New York Daily News running a front-page headline two days later calling the boys who were arrested a “wolf pack.”
“You get a lot of white men, particularly in those [editorial] positions, accepting this old historical narrative about the propensity of black men, men of color, to rape and in particular to rape white women. They do it by way of their close relationship to the police and, in the position of a journalist, abdicating their responsibility to be overseers of the police.”
“It was one of those things that set a foundation for people using the media to support whatever agenda they have. For a part of the country, this case justified fears that people had. It made people be like, ‘See there? This is what this demographic does,’ and it stoked a fire that was just sitting there. People needed an example to point to and be like, ‘This is why we believe the way we believe. Our discrimination is just.’”
Media coverage of police treatment of people of color has improved in some ways—largely thanks to tireless advocacy on the part of the communities affected. But crime coverage still often strongly relies on police and editorial assumptions about race.
“I'm not sure entirely how much the media learned from the way they covered the case at the time. [The Five] were referred to as a ‘wolf pack.’ People just sloppily and lazily used the term ‘wilding’ for the most inflammatory and sensational purposes. They were fanning the flames of social and racial resentment in their coverage. There are lots of instances now where we're still having to correct this. Even when we talk about unarmed African Americans who have been shot by the police, there are all these correctives that have to be sent to the media about how there is rarely a presumption of innocence when it comes to African Americans, especially African-American young men.”
“These early teenagers were treated like adult men, and that's something that still happens today. When it's black teens, they're often referred to as men, and when it's white teens, they're treated as young boys. These mistakes have been happening for way too long. It's time to actually start acting right, when it comes to these things that, through one lens, are just microaggressions, but through another lens, they're extremely damaging mistakes to make. It's clearly ingrained and clearly part of our society. When are some of these patterns gonna break?”
The Central Park Five case demonstrated how easy it is for people—police officers, journalists, politicians—to warp, skew, or disregard facts to validate their historic biases.
“After [Sarah Burns’ 2012 documentary The Central Park Five] came out, people were just coming up to me and they would apologize: ‘You know, I really thought you guys did it. I read all these articles and I really thought you guys did it and I'm sorry.’ As all these other cases start to come out, people are starting to see this isn't isolated. This stuff happens all the time.”
“Some of the practical things that have come out of it, like taping of interrogations, are really important. But we are still a long way away from the big conversation that this nation needs to have about the historical legacy around why men of color, black men, have been associated with rape… These conversations need to happen so that people understand the association between black men or men of color and rape, as well as what rape culture is and how it made all women vulnerable.”
“We still are fully capable of engaging in the sort of mob mentality that is whipped up by institutions, media, political leaders, and so on. The Central Park Five just happened to be one specific example that was related to African-American men. But we see the same thing with Latinos, we see the same thing with Muslims in this country right now. Donald Trump referred to Mexicans as rapists during his initial campaign launch and conjured this idea of women being in peril, which was the same thing that he did with the Central Park Five. And people fell for that. People endorsed it. People took that to be gospel. And so in some ways we are as vulnerable to those kinds of manipulations as we ever were.”
“[The Central Park Five case] seemed to stoke all of the fears that people have in that intersection of race and class and poverty. People who are in poverty do bad things, all of that rhetoric, people seem to be like, ‘Yes! This is clearly what happened.’ So, the jump to the conclusion was not surprising. It's upsetting. A lot has changed in the last 30 years, and a lot remains the same. To some degree, we haven't gone anywhere, in terms of how our biases play out.”
The long shadow of the Central Park Five case touches not only police interrogation procedures, but how society and the media treat those accused of crimes—men, women, and children, and especially people of color. The original prosecutors’ ongoing insistence that the Central Park Five were somehow involved in the rape prove the importance of continuing to engage with and learn about the case.
Today, the Five continue to advocate alongside the Innocence Project (Yusef Salaam is also a board member) to bring an end to coerced confessions and their role in convicting innocent people. And there is progress. Though it’s slow, it’s worthwhile. According to Rembert Browne, the legacy of the case was “the degree of the fight to get the truth out.”
“That is a beautiful aspect of what happened after the initial wave of the case,” he says. “People weren’t deterred by what became a common assumption, which was that they did it.
That took work and diligence and people who understand that all of our institutions and systems are flawed, and that doesn’t mean that you should just give up. You should just keep trying to get the actual truth.”
As mainstream media coverage has attempted to correct, refute, or double down on its past and contemporary coverage of the Central Park Five case, the “Open Line” radio show on WBLA (or Kiss-FM) in New York proved the importance of local, community-based journalism. Hosted by the late Bob Slade, it was one of the first to question the police narrative and inconsistencies in the Central Park Five’s “confessions.” “Open Line” and Slade continued to do so for years, until the charges were officially vacated.
With the Pennsylvania legislature resistant to passing interrogation reform, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has worked directly with local law enforcement to teach new procedures, explains executive director Marissa Bluestine. In Montgomery County, for example, “We brought in a trainer from the U.K., Andy Griffiths, to do a several-day training directly with law enforcement” on the PEACE method, she says. “We’ve never had anybody say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. Get out of here.’ It’s always, ‘Let’s talk about that.’“
Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia now require that interrogations be recorded in full, so that district attorneys and juries alike can see the context in which a confession was made. “We live in the era of the body-worn camera,“ notes Rebecca Brown of the Innocence Project, which along with state-based organizations in the Innocence Network has pushed to expand full recordings. “Why would we have a body-worn camera that is turned off the moment someone is in an interrogation room at their most vulnerable?“
After reading the research showing that non-confrontational interrogation techniques are more effective at identifying the actual perpetrators of crimes, homicide detective Matthew Jones put them in practice in his own work in Tempe, Arizona. Now he’s working with the federal government’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group to develop an interrogation curriculum that is, he says, “ethical, non-confrontational, and based on science-based methods that we know actually work.”
Dr. Courtney Cogburn is the creator of “1,000 Cut Journey,” a VR experience in which the user steps into the life of a black man named Michael Sterling as he grows up, goes to school, and has encounters with the police. The goal of the experience, according to Dr. Cogburn, is to “understand what the scope of racism is.” Racism is built into institutions, and “you’re not going to address the actual problem if you keep avoiding [racism] as part of the problem,” she says. “Working around it won’t be sufficient.”
The story of the innocent boys known as the Central Park Five is not an exception. The fundamental flaws in criminal justice lead to ruined lives—disproportionately so for black and brown people. Raising awareness is just one small way to make progress towards a fairer, less biased world. Continuing the work requires activism and advocacy from all corners of society. Go to winningjustice.org/about/wtsu for a step-by-step introduction to organizations working to reform our current criminal justice system and how you can join the conversation, learn more and take action.