On a mid-April night in 1989, 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili went for a jog through New York City’s Central Park.
Several hours later, Meili would be on death’s doorstep — found gagged, bound, brutally beaten and showing overwhelming evidence of a sexual assault. This image shocked a fearful and racially divided city; a young, well-to-do white woman holding a prestigious station in life had been severely violated.
That same night, a large group of young men from East Harlem entered Central Park with the intention of terrorizing park-goers — harassing, robbing and physically harming several passersby. These crimes paled in comparison to Meili’s condition, however.
Police, upon discovering Meili, led a highly concentrated investigation. Hoping to produce swift results, officers revisited the same group of men, arresting 14 of them in connection to Meili’s rape as well as a number of other serious crimes.
In the police department’s eagerness to name perpetrators in the case, they charged five adolescent males who were in the park that night. Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam were all apprehended and interrogated in connection with Meili’s battery and rape.
Each of the four boys under the age of 16 would ultimately be convicted and spend several years in juvenile detention before being transferred to adult prisons. Wise, who was 16 at the time, was tried as an adult and served 13 years in prison. In the wake of the court proceedings, the group received the moniker, the Central Park Five.
Detectives in charge of the investigation had put the boys through a grueling interrogation, during which four of the five falsely confessed in an effort to relieve themselves of the stressful situation. They later recanted their confessions and proclaimed their innocence.
In 2002, a new confession and DNA evidence spurred a recommendation from the District Attorney of New York County to vacate the case and drop all charges against the Central Park Five. The DNA was a match to murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes, who admitted to Meili’s rape and assault.
Now known as the Exonerated Five, the group does extensive charity and prison-reform work. In 2014, the five received a settlement of $41 million from the City of New York, and an additional $3.9 million from the state.
Thanks to initiatives like the Innocence Project, a non-profit focused on the exoneration of wrongly convicted individuals through DNA, more resources are being allocated to freeing the innocent.
While a whopping 28% of wrongful convictions result from a false confession, an even more astounding 69% of wrongful convictions result from eyewitness misidentification, according to Innocence Project.
In an effort to raise awareness about the flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system and the ramifications of false confessions, Salaam and Santana will deliver a keynote address at Salt Lake Community College’s Grand Theatre on Feb. 18.