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Exonerated 5 survive prison to tell others ‘you have a purpose’
 
Published Wednesday, September 4, 2019
by Freda Freeman, Correspondent

DURHAM – Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana said that in 1989 they were 14- and 15-year-old playful kids who loved to hang out with their friends, watch videos, write rap lyrics, and skateboard. Two kids “just trying to enjoy life.”

That was before their lives were changed forever on the night of April 19, 1989, when they were wrongly accused and arrested for the brutal rape and assault of a woman jogging in New York’s Central Park.

Two of the Exonerated Five, formerly known as the Central Park Five, Salaam spent almost seven years in prison and Santana served five. Also imprisoned were Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, and Antron Mccray, all 14 to 16 years old, who served five to 13 years. In 2001, a convicted murderer and serial rapist who was already serving a life sentence, confessed to the rape, and his DNA matched DNA found at the crime scene. In 2002, the court freed the Exonerated Five, vacating their convictions and expunging their records.

Salaam said he wants people to know without a doubt that the five did not get out of prison because of a technicality. “We got out because de-oxy-ri-bo-nu-cle-ic acid freed us,” he said.

Now activists and motivational speakers, they shared their story of vindication and absolution at Duke University Monday in a conversation with Mark Anthony Neal, chairman of Duke’s Department of African and African American Studies. The title of the program was “Now They Hear Us: Living Without Regret and Inspiring Future Generations.”

Salaam and Santana said the handling of their cases was a complete travesty: elite veteran detectives of the New York Police Department coerced and beat confessions out of them and fed those false stories to the media, and the media, in turn, didn’t do its due diligence of fact checking, but basically tried them in the court of public opinion, “telling the world, if we weren’t guilty of rape, we were guilty of something.” Also, New York businessman Donald Trump ran an ad “paramount to putting a bounty on our heads.” As a result, they and their families received death threats.

“They had published our names, our phone numbers, and our addresses in all of New York City’s newspapers, the mainstream media,” Salaam said. “They were trying to whisper into the most darkest enclaves of society to hopefully have someone come into our homes and to do to us what they had done to Emmett Till.”

Santana added that 30 years later, they still fear for their lives because of people who rejected the court’s decision to vacate their cases.

“This case has been so damaging to us that, for me, I think about it every day. There’s not a day that doesn’t go by, there’s not an hour that doesn’t go by that it’s not on my mind,” he said.

As young boys, the Exonerated Five were ripped from their families and loved ones and sent to a place that was meant for death or to break their spirits, so they could not survive outside the prison walls, Salaam said. But, starting in 2012, through several documentaries, films, and the Netflix series “When They See Us,” they were given their voices back.

“We were survivors of the criminal system of injustice,” Salaam said. “If we had our minds enshackled, like our bodies were enshackled, then we were truly prisoners, but God had a different plan for us.”

Salaam described the Central Park jogger case as a love story between God and his people, a story of a modern-day miracle. He even went as far as to call their experience a gift.

“Even in prison, we got college degrees. We don’t ever say that to impress people, but rather to impress upon people that if we were in a place that is called the belly of the beast, imagine what you can do as a free person,” Salaam said. “We went through that to survive it, in order to let other people know that you, too, can be free.”

Mass incarceration is modern day slavery, Salaam said. “They got a place for us, that place is in prison. We all have to refuse. Because, like my mother said, they need us to participate. The whole world is telling you that you are not worthy, but you are here on purpose and you have a purpose.”

Santana said he was once asked if he could change things, would he. He answered no because experiencing what he went through made him the man he is today, and he’s proud of that man. He said his work now is to inspire and speak into the lives of black youth who will become   future presidents, police officers, and lawyers.

 

Comments

Awesome article. So glad their story is being told. To many of our brothers and sisters are being victimized by the criminal system of injustice.
Posted on September 6, 2019
 

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