By Carol Covington
Growing up in Harlem in 1989, 15-year-old Yusef Salaam loved skateboarding, kung-fu films and comic books. Back then, 14-year-old Raymond Santana Jr. was into hip-hop and fashion. Kevin Richardson, also 14, liked basketball and played the trumpet.
Salaam, Santana and Richardson’s American dreams turned into an American nightmare in April 1989 when they were arrested and interrogated for the brutal rape and assault of a white woman who had been jogging in New York City’s Central Park. They were three of five young men of color who were arrested, charged and in fall 1990 convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
As they moved through the criminal-justice system, law enforcement and the media labeled them the “Central Park Five.” Nearly 13 years after their initial arrest, the New York Supreme Court vacated their conviction based on DNA evidence and a confession; today, the men are known as the “Exonerated Five” and they work together and individually to educate the public on issues of mass incarceration and the disparities in America’s criminal-justice system for young men of color.
“Dreams change,” Salaam, 46, told a rapt audience at the Colorado Convention Center on Saturday as he recounted his ordeal alongside Santana, 45, and Richardson, 45, in a forum led by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and organized by New Thinkers, which works to catalyze conversations around social justice and systemic bias through events, speeches and public forums. Metropolitan State University of Denver co-sponsored the event.
The exonerated men's social-justice message is in line with that emphasized by faculty in MSU Denver's Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said Henry Jackson, Ph.D., the department's chair and an associate professor.
"We don't just teach you how to be a police officer, or probation officer or a lawyer," he said. "Our faculty is committed to graduating ethical practitioners and leaders in the criminal-justice system."
Salaam, Santana and Richardson appeared on stage in front of bold, oversized portraits of themselves as teenagers painted by Denver artist Thomas “Detour” Evans. They took turns recounting their childhoods, experiences in the criminal-justice system and views on how the country can eliminate disparities in enforcement of the law hurting communities of color.
Even after they were exonerated and released from prison in December 2002, the injustices they suffered didn’t end, Richardson said.
“I was placed on parole for an additional 3 years and forced to register at the highest level as a sexual predator, based on Megan’s Law,” he said.
Once they were released, they found themselves in a world that offered no transitional programs, Santana added. He eventually found strength and success through education.
“The proper revenge to an injustice is to be successful,” he said. “Once you taste victory, you will want more.”
Their story was documented in 2012’s “The Central Park Five,” a Peabody Award-winning documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns, and it was revived in the media in 2014 when the five men settled a civil-rights lawsuit against New York City for $41 million. It was broadcast to a new generation last year in the Netflix dramatic miniseries “When They See Us,” directed by Ava DuVernay.
Though the saga of the Exonerated Five is 30 years old, it’s important that it continue to be told because the systemic issues that led to their wrongful conviction persist, said JayAnn Villalobos, an MSU Denver criminal-justice major who attended the forum with almost 20 students and faculty members from the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.
“If nobody sees the problems, how are we going to fix them?” she said. “We need to learn what is being done wrong (that results in) so many people of color being falsely convicted. This case is so important because it brings to light a dark topic that not many of us want to discuss.”
Wrongful convictions — even occurring at a low percentage of total convictions — and ongoing injustices suffered by people of color have real impacts on families and communities, said Andrea R. Borrego, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.
"The damage to marginalized communities is disproportionate to that percentage," she said. "It creates an historical trauma that's difficult to overcome."
As he recounted his arrest, trial and parole, Salaam observed that there were very few persons of color working in law enforcement and that the criminal-justice system needed more people of color in its ranks today.
The point was salient for Jackson. People of color that are victims or see their families or their neighbors become victims of injustice at the hands of law enforcement are steered away from careers in the criminal-justice field, he explained. It compounds the damage because the system needs more people of color in its ranks — and leadership.
"People of color can't be afraid of working in the criminal-justice system or ostracize those that work in it," he said. "We need more people of color in the system to change it."
The emotion established by the portraits of the men as teenagers by Denver artist Detour Evans was an important part of Saturday's event, Jackson said.
From the time when the boys were arrested in April 1989 through their trials and convictions in the summer and fall of 1990, they were portrayed animalistically in the press and even by courtroom sketch artists, Salaam told the audience on Saturday.
"Those paintings were dramatic and different than anything I'd seen," Jackson said. "It was an accurate portrayal of them as they were at that time — teenagers."
Additional reporting by Alex Pasquariello
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