In 1989, the media branded them “The Central Park Five,” as they were wrongfully accused, convicted and imprisoned for the horrific rape and beating of Trisha Meili in Central Park. But that’s not who they are. Thirty years after they were first tried as children ages 14-16, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray are exonerated, free men who are taking back their lives and telling their own story.
The truth of how the NYPD coerced them as children into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit, their stolen years in prison, the real rapist Matias Reyes’ 2002 confession leading to their exoneration, and the $41 million settlement they received from the State of New York, is now on full display in Ava DuVernay’s powerful Netflix limited series When They See Us. While McCray and Richardson were unavailable to speak by the time of publication, Shadow And Act caught up with Wise, Salaam and Santana as the series premiered to discuss how they’re doing in the aftermath and what peace—if not justice—might mean for them today.
Korey Wise and Ava DuVernay | Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
“I’m still surviving. That’s all,” Wise told Shadow And Act over the phone from his home in Harlem. At 16, Wise was the oldest of the boys and was therefore sentenced as an adult. When the others first went to juvenile prisons before transferring to adult prisons when they came of age, serving about 7 years each, Wise spent more than thirteen years in maximum security adult prisons throughout New York—most of which were spent in solitary confinement due to the violent attacks and stabbings he suffered.
A child, alone in a terrifying new reality, Wise had no idea at the time of his incarceration just how internationally infamous his case was or why incarcerated men and even prison guards wanted to harm him. He’d learn in 2012 when Sarah Burns and her father Ken Burns produced the documentary on their exoneration, The Central Park Five, that powerful figures like Donald Trump had called for the boys to be executed—even before their trial.
“He put a bounty over my head,” Wise said of Trump. “I found myself learning [about what Trump did] after the Burns family documentary,” which showed the $85,000 full-page ads Trump took out in New York papers, asking the state to “bring back the death penalty.”
“That was the bounty he put over my head. I don’t know how I survived it, but I did.”
When asked for what purpose he believes he survived, Wise said, “Pretty much just to try to look after those who I grew up with,” he said. “I try to recognize my purpose when I go through [my old community] and when I come across my old comrades who I grew up with. If I have it, a dollar or something, they have it. ‘Cause I don’t want them to feel I find myself where I’m getting 'too big,' where I can’t help or assist them anymore,” he said. “Because I know it’s they struggle as well. They just ain't got the capital to take care of they struggle,” he said. “Because that’s the love that I want whoever I’m doing it for to do for me.”
After all of his being at the wrong place at the wrong time, finally, some good came his way when he had two chance encounters with the real rapist, Reyes, in prison. First, there was an altercation over the volume of a TV—Wise, who has had hearing loss since childhood, couldn’t hear with the volume turned down so low.
Years later, after Wise had moved around to different prisons, he found himself back again at the same prison in the same yard as Reyes in 2002. Reyes reminded him about the TV and apologized for their fight. After seeing that day that Wise was still paying for his crimes, Reyes alerted the prison guards that he wanted to confess to raping Meili all of those years ago. His DNA was tested and matched with 100% accuracy and was the only DNA found on Meili and at the scene. In fact, Reyes was found to be a serial rapist and the murderer of pregnant mother Lourdes Gonzalez—tragedies that would have been avoided had the police arrested Reyes instead of rushing to convict five innocent boys. The five men were exonerated and Wise was released from prison.
After their exoneration and their settlement with New York state, Wise went on to fund the Korey Wise Innocence Project with the University of Colorado Law School, which helps those who have been convicted of crimes despite being innocent. He speaks on panels and at schools, sharing his experience as an innocent person trapped in the criminal justice system.
Still, there is a deep hurt in Wise that has yet to heal. Wise was never even a suspect in The Central Park Jogger case until he went down to the police station with his friend Salaam, to look after him in the absence of Salaam’s mother. He was immediately separated from Salaam at the police station and they had separate trials, so it wasn’t until their exoneration in 2002 when the real rapist confessed, that he had any contact at all with Salaam. “I was just left to fend for myself,” Wise said of all of his years in prison and even now.
“That’s what makes our struggles different. My struggle’s been a solid [14 years] that almost turned into life. If it wasn’t for Reyes [confessing], my time would have turned into 15-to-life. My mind would have still been on, ‘Where’s my boy, Yusef at?’ I’m looking for him. I’m looking for a letter from him, a birthday card,” Wise said. “It would be nice to get something from you, every now and then,” he said of Salaam.
“I’ve been doing nearly 15 years without hearing from anybody, so I’m used to that,” he said, referring to his life in prison and the years since. “I’ve been surviving for nearly 15 years with the good help of my mom, God bless her. Even outside of her, I find myself growing up as a grown man. I don’t look for her to help me but, if I have it, she got it, because that’s how much she gave me ever since I’ve been away.”
To stay positive, Wise finds comfort in the music of his childhood, listening to ‘80s hip-hop constantly. To him, it’s more than music, it’s a lifestyle. “Outside my survival, I just try to live the life of not being 'CP5' but just being hip-hop from the ‘80s, on self-empowerment, self-improvement. Just keep moving ahead,” he said.
“I love my hip-hop sound, my hip-hop vibe,” he said. “The hip-hop vibe is pretty much my way of staying youthful and just my body and soul and staying young and keeping a positive outlook on my end. So, as I may find myself [meeting] a fan of the documentary [The Central Park Five or the series When They See Us] and they feel my energy, that’s where it’s coming from. This is spiritually minded.”
It’s a path he feels he walks nearly alone. “It’s just me and my God. He tells me what to do and I do it,” Wise said. Still, he feels love for those he’s still bonded with for life, through a 30-year ordeal of injustice and now triumph—especially Salaam. “I love you, Yusef Salaam. It wasn’t your fault that you left me behind,” he said. “You’re going to always be my brother, man. I still need your help.”
Yusef Salaam speaks after the five win their settlement with New York | Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
When Salaam hears Wise's quote during a phone interview with Shadow And Act at his home in Atlanta, Georgia, he is filled with understanding. “I think even more so now [after watching When They See Us and knowing what Korey went through], I get it,” Salaam said. “To me, that was the hardest part. I had often thought that we had always gone through hell, but I realize his part in particular—because he was not on the list of suspects, he came [to the police station with me in 1989] to be my ace in the hole, to be like, ‘I got your back,’ without knowing anything about the justice system,” he said.
“They beat him up and forced him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. I think seeing his part [in the series] brought it home, how terrible his life was like and how terrible it is now because he can’t unsee it either,” Salaam said. “He was 16 years old in Rikers Island. He was not a criminal. That criminal element was out of his norm and caused him to be in a state of fight or flight. Then he lost the trial, now he’s no longer in the same age group, he’s in Attica, Wendi, Clinton [adult prisons]—in there with grown men who are looking at him as fresh meat, so to speak. He didn’t deserve that. I’m very sorry that he went through all of that for me. He didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve that,” Salaam said.
“That was my friend. He wasn’t a guy I knew in the neighborhood—it wasn’t like that. He and I were hanging out at each other’s house," Salaam said.“He’s the most important piece. He’s the magic key that freed us all—back in 2002 [when Reyes confessed after seeing Wise] and then in 2014 when we won our lawsuits. Even though we’re free now, I’m in Atlanta, he’s in New York, and what I’ve been trying to do is bridge that gap, to let him know that I’m there, to make sure that he’s okay. We all have to check on each other and see how they’re doing. I was able, in many ways, to do something he has not yet. I found someone and we got married. We have a large family and you have something to look forward to,” Salaam said as one of his ten children vied for his attention in the background. “It’s those kinds of things that kind of help, even on a small scale.”
It’s that familial support Salaam hopes that he and the rest of them in their “sacred brotherhood” can offer Wise on a more regular basis, now. “Even if it’s getting together once a month or every 6 weeks. I’m going to talk to the guys. I think it will be helpful for all of us. Nobody said, ‘I’m going to help you acclimate into society.’ We’ve been doing that, stumbling forward. I think that’s important to share that information, especially with Korey, to let him know that we’re here for him and I’m here for him and I want to be able to help him get through the nightmare.”
Up until he watched When They See Us in a private screening with the others and DuVernay, Salaam believed he had successfully moved on from the nightmare. “There was 30 years of trauma that I thought that I had dealt with, but what I had realized was, I had put it behind me and kept moving forward, and never really looked back at what happened to me and the rest of the guys,” he said.
But watching the series, he said, “It was medicine.” DuVernay had allowed them and their families to be deeply involved with the making of the series and told their stories as they’ve never been told before, to great acclaim. “We had that wonderful world premiere at the Apollo [Theater in Harlem]. To see the love and appreciation where we were once led away from Harlem in handcuffs—Ava DuVernay is doing the work of God. Thank you for protecting us,” he said. “It was tremendously valuable to be able to move to the next stage of our lives.”
Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Ava DuVernay and Korey Wise | Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Town & Country
Now a motivational speaker, published author and poet, Salaam is still piecing together what freedom might actually mean for him.
“I think there’s a truth that you really never are free,” he said. “That negative residue of being seen as the scum of the earth, it continues to haunt me. Someone might look at me like, ‘Wow, that’s a nice tie,’ but if you’ve been victimized like we have, you’re always fearful as to the thoughts and what possible actions come from the thoughts [of other people]. It’s a horrible experience to live in. I was talking to some of the guys, especially Antron McCray; we feel more comfortable being at home for days upon days. That’s considered unhealthy, but sometimes it’s more easy to do that than go to the grocery store. And that’s a constant. I feel healed every time I speak [about my case as a motivational speaker], but then I go back to my reality, my quiet, the plane ride or car ride home. And the lingering thoughts are there.”
Even if he’s not quite free from the trauma he suffered, Salaam finds peace in his Muslim faith and in his purpose.
“What gets me is knowing this is not the end. In this life, a lot of people get away with a lot of evil. For me, it’s about being in a space where you’re striving to do good. Nobody’s perfect, but it’s based on your intentions. And knowing what happened to me, there’s a certain blessing in disguise,” he said before explaining how he discovered the purpose in his pain.
“There was a gentleman that came up to me in prison. Jerome Jones asked me a question I wrote in my poetry book: ‘Who are you?’ I was confused. I said, 'I’m Yusef Salaam, accused of raping the Central Park Jogger, but I didn’t do that.’ He said, ‘I know you’re not supposed to be here, but why are you here?’ In the Bible, when God decrees a thing, all he says is ‘Be,’ and it is. Mothers and fathers got together and from all of the options racing towards the egg, we made it, and now you have to give the child a name and you have to figure out who is this child and why is this child here. Seven days later, you give the baby a name at the naming ceremony,” he said. “My name given to me is Yusef Adris Faadel Salaam. Yusef means ‘God will increase.’ Adris means, ‘the teacher.’ Faadel means ‘with justice’ and Salaam is ‘peace.’ I was born into this world named, ‘God will increase the teacher with justice and peace.’"
“It spoke to me with a higher purpose. I’m supposed to transform people’s lives. I’m supposed to tell people about the criminal justice system by having gone through it with the worst kind of label that you can place on any person in society,” he said. “That is a part of the peace. I’ve found meaning and I know who I am.”
Raymond Santana speaks after the five men won a $41 million settlement with New York | Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images[/caption]
For Raymond Santana, a father who also now lives in Atlanta, a part of the beauty in When They See Us is the opportunity for him to not only understand more of himself and where he is in his healing process but also to know what his brothers went through.
“Some of the healing process for me was to sit down with my brothers and see the series together and then to acknowledge the five of us—even though we were together—we were on five different journeys and to acknowledge each other’s journeys. Things happened that we didn’t know about. Just to talk about that and just acknowledging that was therapeutic,” he said.
“For Korey, we didn’t know everything he went through. We were the Central Park Five, but for him, it was four plus one, and it was getting to talk to him and hearing him out that kind of made us understand. The four of us were able to kind of move on with our lives and have families and put the pieces together. As for him, he’s still struggling, and he hasn’t made the accomplishments that we have yet. We didn’t have counselors, but we were also able to talk to each other and become like each other’s counselors.”
Besides Wise and Salaam, the boys didn’t know each other and became a brotherhood by no choice of their own. Through watching the series and understanding each other better, choosing the brotherhood and to be an active part of each other’s healing process became a part of taking back ownership of their lives and their story.
“[Watching the series together] brought us closer. It made our circle tighter. The brotherhood was really cemented. Any way that we can help [Korey] and each other, we’re there for each other now. Period. We talk more regularly than we did before. It’s a blessing,” he said.
Though, as Salaam said, the series did “reopen a wound,” for Santana. A particularly brutal sequence in his story as portrayed in the series was his stepmother’s behavior when he was finally released from prison and came back home to live with his father.
“This was somebody who he met while I was incarcerated,” Santana said of his stepmother. “There was a language barrier between us. She didn’t really know me, I didn’t really know her,” he said, considering her limited English and his limited Spanish. While tensions were high in the home, they reached a peak after Santana was unable to find gainful employment as someone with a felony conviction on his record who was also forced to register as a sex offender. Santana turned to selling drugs to make enough money to leave his father’s home and live on his own with his girlfriend. His stepmother reported him to his parole officer for selling drugs and he was reincarcerated for violating his parole. He was only released after Reyes confessed to committing the rape alone and DNA evidence exonerated all five of them.
Still, Santana has no ill will against his stepmother. “I think because of the language barrier between us, our relationship was at a standstill and it never evolved, it never got itself better. After that, I was able to move out of my dad’s house and so it was one of those situations [when] there’s no disrespect towards each other, it just never progressed.”
As far as his relationship with his father goes, Santana said, “Our relationship is pretty good, it’s cool. You have a 7-year gap where, if you have a son or daughter, you really try to teach them fundamentals and values and he wasn’t able to do that because I was gone and the system taught me a bunch of stuff. When I came back, I’m older and throughout the whole process, I’m 27 years old and so he’s still my dad but it’s like, because I learned so much in those years, I don’t take a leadership role from my dad, I am a leader. Somebody who has a normal life, they can always go back to their parents for that guidance and it wasn’t possible for me.”
When they were exonerated in 2002, Santana let the thing that brought him joy in his childhood guide him back on his path to reclaiming his life. “I always had a passion for sketching. I always had a passion for drawing. When I went to prison I kind of lost that passion. After the exoneration, I was sitting down with a good friend of mine who asked me what do I want to do with my life now. I wanted to go back into sketching, go back into designing. This was the appropriate time to gain back what I lost.”
That’s how his clothing label Park Madison was born. “At the time, I lived on 111th between Park and Madison, and that’s how I came up with the name for the line itself.” His best-selling T-Shirt design is a simple black tee, with the names of all of the Exonerated Five printed down the front: “Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Korey & Raymond.” He also sells a shirt with his own mugshot on it, reclaiming the image and his own story.
“I just felt that truth is truth and no matter how they try to dress it up, you can’t deny the truth,” he said.
Still, there is frustration that people continue to cast doubt on their innocence. Just before Santana spoke with Shadow And Act ahead of the premiere of When They See Us, 20/20 had aired its own documentary on ABC, One Night in Central Park.
“Yeah, it definitely felt intentional,” Santana said of 20/20’s choice to air its documentary—featuring the prosecutor who oversaw their interrogation and trial, Linda Fairstein and the lead police investigators on the case—before When They See Us premiered on Netflix. “They asked me to participate and I said no because I felt that it was intentional. Whenever we did some type of special, they always made it, ‘Well, here’s their side and here’s the prosecutors’ side; which side do you believe?’ We’ve been exonerated 10 years. Why are we still dealing with that narrative? They just say, ‘Well, you must be guilty of something.’ That’s why we didn’t want to participate. The motivation is, as long as prosecutors say they didn’t do anything wrong, our fight continues.”
Now, the Exonerated Five are starting to see some of the perpetrators of their tragedy held to account. Not even a full weekend after When They See Us premiered, Fairstein deleted her Twitter account after receiving intense backlash for her lead role in the interrogation of the boys which led to their false confessions. She’s also resigned from her position on the Vassar College Board of Trustees and the non-profit organization Safe Horizon, a victim’s assistance organization. More than 80,000 people have signed a petition to get her best-selling true crime novels—which she based on her time as a prosecutor—dropped by her publisher and booksellers around the world.
Unlike Fairstein, Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor at trial, has not spoken publicly about the case or her role in the lasting torment of these men. She is still a prosecutor at the New York County District Attorney’s Office and she’s been a professor teaching trial practice to scores of law students at Columbia University School of Law for years. While there was a petition to remove her from Columbia back in 2013, after the airing of the Burns family documentary The Central Park Five, and another petition to the Dean of Columbia Law School has recently emerged, Lederer still remains in her positions.
As far as Fairstein’s recent reckoning is concerned, Santana told TMZ he supported the petitions for her removal. “Even if it's 30 years later, she has to pay for her crime,” he said.
Now, on her SiriusXM radio show, journalist and political strategist Zerlina Maxwell asked democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand what accountability could look like for those perpetrators of injustice. Gillibrand seemed to agree with Santana: “There should be a criminal investigation. The truth is, if they fabricated evidence, if they lied under oath, if they lied to the grand jury, those are criminal acts and they should be prosecuted.”
Maxwell has now called for “every [democratic] presidential hopeful” to “answer a question about accountability and the so called #CentralPark5 now that @WhenTheySeeUs is out and everyone is learning the facts about how the prosecutors and police railroaded five innocent Black and Brown boys in 1989.”
“It looks a whole lot better now than it did in 1989,” Santana said of the opportunity for accountability to actually take place. It’s an invigorating moment for him to continue sharing his story with those who need to hear it.
“We continue to battle. When we went to prison, we were 14, 15, 16-year-old boys and now we’re grown men. The mentality is different. You sent us to prison and now we’re warriors. We’re fighters. We’re not afraid to battle. And now the war has become deeper because we see that the system is set up to take away our youth, make them occupy a jail cell rather than a college dorm. Our fight takes on a different ministry now,” he said.
“If prosecutors and police say we’re still guilty, we can’t battle them anymore, so we have to bring about the awareness. We have to focus our attention on our kids,” he said of speaking to children about how to interact with the police and what they can expect.
“Hopefully, we can save our youth [from being coerced and set up]. Hopefully, it wakes our kids up, wakes their parents up [to the reality of the criminal justice system] and they have those conversations that are necessary. We have invested in our youth through our story and what happened to us.”
“We’re trying to wake up as many as we can to help with this battle, because when we’re long gone, the story of the Central Park Five will still be there. These kids can take a stand and say, ‘What woke me up was the story of, When They See Us.’”
Brooke C. Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.
Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images