Virginia Tech event features Central Park Five

Program sheds much deserved light on injustice in America
Exonerated Five (from left): Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam.

by S. Rotan Hale

As part of Virginia Tech’s (VT) week-long (Jan. 21-24) commemoration honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in civil and human rights the university presented a keynote discussion with the Central Park Five (CP-5).

“Virginia Tech commemorates the memory of Dr. King during this period to understand the principles by which he lived his life as well as to reflect on the life and ways in which we should fully embrace the values we profess–in furthering the cause of justice,” announced Ellington Graves opening the program.

“It is important to recognize the ways in which his (King’s) work is powerfully relevant for the world we live in today,” he added. Graves is Assistant Provost for Inclusion and Diversity, VT.

“We seek to engage in a discussion that would help us to recognize the personal and collective costs of systemic bias and injustice–to link our guests’ experiences to the core issues of justice that we associate with the movements of which and in which Dr. King’s work flowed,” stated Graves through an eloquent synopsis of the program’s mission.

The band of brothers were the focus of a highly publicized trial in the Central Park jogger case in New York City which led to their conviction and imprisonment, as teenagers, in 1990 for the brutal attack and raping of Tricia Meili. However, in 2002  the men were exonerated and released when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist, admitted to the 1989 attack, over a decade after the CP-5 were convicted of the crime.

The momentous event was held at the Anne And Ellen Fife Theatre, Moss Arts Center, on the VT campus and because of heavy attendance (sold out), it was also streamed live at Tech’s Haymarket Theatre in Squires Student Center.

Featured was a panel discussion with Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam– four of the five members of the CP-5. A fifth member, Antron McCray did not attend due to unforeseen circumstances. The discussion was moderated by Brandy Faulkner, Gloria Smith Professor of Africana Studies and faculty member of VT’s Department of Political Science.

The group gained celebrity status through their story dramatized in a Netflix series “When They See Us,” released 2019 created, co-written, by famed directed Ava DuVernay.

Their case has been the subject of multiple documentary films as well, including the film “The Central Park 5” involving the award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns. The men have come to be known as the “Exonerated Five.”

“I am so honored to be in the discussion with such strong, intelligent and resilient Black men,” Faulkner stated in her opening remarks exalting the celebrated band of brothers–so united by their infamous and unfortunate circumstances.

Further laying the ground for such an impactful program, Faulkner highlighted an array of startling statics by the National Registry of Exonerations stating: Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of a murder; three and a half times more likely to be wrongfully charged and convicted of a sexual assault. Lastly she mentioned Blacks as being twelve times more likely to be wrongfully charged and convicted of a drug-related offense.

“These extraordinary rates are just only 13% of the population and these are the ones we know of– the ones that we have found out about because of their exonerations,” she added. How many are still sitting in prison, how many names do we have yet to learn.

Following is a brief overview of the CP-5 members and how their lives continue.

From left: Korey Wise with his attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, Clinical Professor Ann England and Christy Martinez. – Photo courtesy Korey Wise Innocence Project

Korey Wise was the oldest of the group wrongfully arrested in the case. At only 16, he was remanded to New York’s notorious Rikers Island, and after being wrongfully convicted, spent 12 years in prison–the longest sentence among the group. Currently Wise lives in New York City where he is an avid public speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2015, the Colorado Innocence Project was renamed the Korey Wise Innocence Project in recognition of his generous financial support.

Raymond Santana served over 6 years…

“We still don’t know how to put our lives fully back together. It’s a struggle every day.”

Raymond Santana is an activist, entrepreneur and public speaker. According to a May 2019 interview, Santana inspired director Ava DuVernay to tell the Central Park Five story. Following the success of her film Selma, he tweeted a suggestion that she make their story her next project.

Kevin Richardson served over 6 years and currently lives in New Jersey with his family. He has been an outspoken and passionate advocate for legal reform to prevent wrongful conviction. In New York, along with Santana and Salaam, he has been a leading voice in helping pass mandatory recording of interrogations and eyewitness identification reforms.

Dr. Yusef Salaam served 6 years, 8 months. He is the father of 10, is a motivational speaker and current Innocence Project board member who travels the world to educate people on the systemic failures of the U.S. legal system and youth vulnerability in legal proceedings. Along with Santana and Richardson, he has been a leading voice in helping pass mandatory recording of interrogations and eyewitness identification reforms in New York. In 2016, President Barack Obama presented Dr. Salaam with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Antron McCray Served over 6 years lives in Georgia with his family. In a recent CBS interview he shared that he still has not forgiven his father, who convinced him to falsely confess to police about his involvement in the case after the 10-hour interrogation. As a result, the biggest lesson he learned from the ordeal is the importance of “truth.”

“I preach to my kids, ‘Just tell the truth. Be true to who you are,’” he said. “Honestly, the last time I lied, got me seven-and-a-half years for something I didn’t do.”

All spoke candidly about the fateful experiences that forever changed their lives.

The program and its organizers painted a profound yet bleak picture of the horrific injustices surrounding the Exonerated Five as well as countless other unrecognized non-white individuals. Thanks to efforts of organizations as The Innocence Project and its mission to right the wrongs of a system in changes–the pendulum of justice perpetually swings!