NEW YORK – The city is moving closer to honoring the five teens convicted in the racially charged Central Park jogger case.
The permanent exhibit would be installed in the northeast part of the park, near where the teens entered that fateful night in April 1989 – and would highlight their fight for justice against a system they and their supporters believe railroaded them and led to their convictions in the rape of Trisha Meili.
It’s not yet clear if there will be a statue or some other artistic rendering.
The five men are aware of the proposal and at least one, Yusef Salaam, has openly backed it, according to Karen Horry, chairwoman of Community Board 10’s Parks and Recreation Committee, and has been presenting a case for the exhibit before other boards.
“We envision a permanent commemoration to the fortitude and resiliency of the five men known as the Exonerated Five and to the need [for] social justice reform,” Horry said last week during one of her presentations. “The park is the most natural location for a commemoration since its location is burned into the collective memories of New Yorkers as a major turning point in our city’s history.”
Police and prosecutors involved in the case have long contended the five teens were not the innocents they’ve been cast as by their supporters.
Retired NYPD Detective Eric Reynolds, who was a patrol officer the night of the crime and arrested three of the five, claims that too many people have ignored what really happened.
Long before he ran for president, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for the execution of the since-exonerated five teens. He has steadfastly refused to acknowledge he was wrong, or apologize for taking out the ads.
The mayor has signaled his support, with a spokesman saying he is “absolutely open to acknowledging this chapter of our history in the park,” as has Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who says any remembrance is an opportunity to learn from what went wrong.
“There are a lot of racial issues to discuss,” she said. “And I think it’s important to have that discussion.”
In October, Community Board 10 submitted a statement of objectives and goals to the Central Park Conservancy and the Parks Department, an early step in the bureaucratic process.
The New York City of 1989 was a very different place with thousands of murders, the unfolding crack epidemic and crime on the rise. And the depravity of the jogger case still stunned the five boroughs.
Meili, a white 28-year-old Salomon Brothers investment banker, was found bloody, beaten and violated in a ravine near the 102nd Street cross path on April 19.
Five teens, Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise, were picked up and charged in the attack and assaults on other people in the park that night. The quintet said they were coerced into giving false confessions. Four of them were on tape.
They served between 6½ and 13 years in prison for the crimes. Then, in 2002, convicted rapist and killer Matias Reyes stepped forward with a stunning claim: he alone raped the jogger, though doctors had said her physical injuries pointed to more than one attacker.
Reyes’ DNA matched the unidentified sample found at the scene but not linked to anyone at the time. The development gave the five a new lease on life: The rape convictions were vacated, along with the convictions connected to the “wilding” assaults of others in the park that night.
In 2014, the city settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit, paying the five $41 million but denying any wrongdoing by the NYPD or prosecutors.
The five men did not respond to requests for comment, but Jonathan Moore, one of several lawyers who helped secure their settlement, said better than a park remembrance would be lasting reform.
“It’s most likely happening every day in the city,” Moore said, “people being forced and coerced and manipulated into giving false accounts of criminal liability.”
Meili, who remained anonymous until she came out publicly in 2003, did not respond to requests for comment.
Linda Fairstein, the former sex crimes prosecutor who helped oversee the investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, refused to comment because she is involved in a defamation lawsuit against Netflix, which broadcast a series she says cast her as a racist.
But her supporters include now-retired NYPD Detective Robert Mooney, who interviewed Reyes and does not believe his insistence that he was the sole attacker.
He called the proposed remembrance “ridiculous” and an example of “political expedience.”
“They know what they did better than anybody.” he said of the five. “They absolutely committed the crimes they were indicted for and did their time for.”
Paul DiGiacomo, who heads the Detectives’ Endowment Association, said the push to honor the Exonerated Five is a slap in the NYPD’s face.
“When’s the last time anyone talked about a statue for a cop or a detective that was shot? he asked. “We’ve got people, innocent victims, getting shot, grandmothers getting shot.
“Are we going to have statues of the people who shot them?”
With Graham Rayman and Shant Shahrigian
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