President Karol V. Mason Moderates Central Park Five Panel at The Innocence Network Conference

President Karol V. Mason Moderates Central Park Five Panel at The Innocence Network Conference

President Karol V. Mason Moderates Central Park Five Panel at The Innocence Network Conference

At The Innocence Project’s annual Innocence Network Conference, held on April 12–13, over 950 attendees and 250 exonerated individuals joined sessions, panels, and workshops meant to help those who have been wrongfully convicted. The most highly anticipated panel was that of the “Central Park Five” moderated by John Jay College’s own President Karol V. Mason. The five black and Latinx men—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—were between the ages of 14 and 16 years old when they were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. They served between six to 12 plus years in prison. In 2002, the man who actually committed the crime confessed—his DNA matched the DNA found at the crime scene, he stated he acted alone, and knew facts about the case that were unknown to the public—and the convictions of the five men were vacated. Their story of injustice was recently brought to the small screen in Netflix’s When They See Us. The four-part miniseries, directed by Ava DuVernay, explores the injustices and hardships the teens faced throughout the interrogation process, trials, imprisonment, and life once they were released.

Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam
(left to right) Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam

“We continue to get it wrong in this country. Your courage to tell your story and help us learn from it will hopefully move us forward to that ideal we aspire to be.” —President Karol V. Mason

Taking Center Stage
The panel included Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and actress Niecy Nash, who plays Wise’s mother Delores in the series. They joined Mason to discuss how being wrongfully convicted can impact not only the individual caught up in the criminal justice system, but also the community as a whole. They also addressed what the next generation can do to make the justice system a fairer one. “I want to start off by saying thank you. Thank you all for being willing to engage in this conversation and to help us make sure that no one ever has to go through what you went through again,” said Mason. “We know that we send far too many people to prison who are in fact innocent. We continue to get it wrong in this country. Your courage to tell your story and help us learn from it will hopefully move us forward to that ideal we aspire to be.”

(left to right) Niecy Nash, Raymond Santana, President Karol V. Mason, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam during the Central Park Five panel
(left to right) Niecy Nash, Raymond Santana, President Karol V. Mason, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam during the Central Park Five panel

Telling their Story
The three men bravely shared with the audience their experiences about being incarcerated and exonerated. Salaam began with the realization that their struggle has served a purpose. “We were chosen to go through this, and really we were chosen to grow through this, so that we can reveal to the world what this criminal system of injustice is all about,” said Salaam. Part of that injustice was the mistreatment they received during the interrogation process. Richardson opened up about how pressure from the detectives, and the promise of going home, led to his false confession. At the age of 14, Richardson noted, he “hadn’t experienced life” and didn’t even know what Miranda Rights were. “The way these detectives used their tactics. There was a lot of trickery going on in getting me to believe I was going home,” said Richardson. Echoing his sentiment, Salaam added, “We now know that their interrogation methods were a tried and true method, and that they were using these methods to make people believe in, and then say these lies.”

President Mason asking the panel a question
President Mason asking the panel a question

“We were chosen to go through this, and really we were chosen to grow through this, so that we can reveal to the world what this criminal system of injustice is all about.” —Yusef Salaam

The teens also had to contend with a barrage of hostile media coverage. Coverage that was cultivating a guilty narrative. “Within the first two weeks of this case there were 400 articles written about us, dissecting our lives as 14, 15, and 16 year olds,” said Santana. “And, with all the labels they gave us, of ‘wolf pack,’ ‘wildings’ and ‘urban terrorists,’ we quickly became the most hated individuals in New York.” Richardson reiterated Santana’s point. “There was so much of a media frenzy surrounding our case,” said Richardson. “People didn’t use logic.”

Yusef Salaam
Yusef Salaam

Changing the System
Salaam also believes race played a role in furthering the narrative of the black and Latinx teens as villains. “This system that disproportionately puts black and brown bodies in jail, back in a state of slavery, has to change,” said Salaam. Some of that change will happen when people learn what their rights are—something the teenagers were unaware of at the time of their interrogation—so they can advocate for themselves. “I want people to know their rights. I want them to know that when you are being interrogated you need a lawyer and that you do not have to say anything. Know your rights and fight for what you know,” said Richardson.  

For Santana, recording the entire interrogation process could make all the difference in a case. “I’m an advocate for recording the entire interrogation process. Seeing how a person, who has been under duress for almost 30 hours, is questioned,” said Santana. “We want you to see and analyze the whole process, see it from beginning to end. See how it builds up and how they can pull the rug from under someone.”

Niecy Nash
Niecy Nash

“You can wipe out a whole group of people with a lie.” —Niecy Nash

That “pulling of the rug” wasn’t just felt by the five men, it affected their families as well. That’s a point the series makes by telling the story from the perspective of multiple characters, according to Nash. “You get to see that when you throw that rock it affects an entire family. You can wipe out a whole group of people with a lie,” said Nash. “I love the fact that we get to peel back all the layers with this series. You get to see that it’s not just the boys, it’s their families. The series allows the public to see how a lie turned so many against them.”

Salaam talks about the struggles he has faced
Salaam talks about the struggles he has faced

“When you see young kids, you realize that they don’t know that it’s a war. The war is the system wanting you to occupy a jail cell, instead of occupying a college classroom.” —Raymond Santana

Moving Forward
When the men were released from jail, they each faced difficulties in transitioning back into society. “We were outcasts,” said Salaam who expressed that he’s still working through the trauma. “I’m still coming back. When something like this happens to a person at such a young age, it’s difficult to be able to push all the way forward.” But the key is that they are moving forward. And, they’re doing so together, as brothers, according to Santana. “We still haven’t put our lives back together. All we can do is move forward as brothers,” he said. “It wasn’t until the [Ken Burns] documentary came out that we noticed we have a voice. It was an awakening that we had a job to do. When you see young kids, you realize that they don’t know that it’s a war. The war is the system wanting you to occupy a jail cell, instead of occupying a college classroom. We started public speaking and going to schools. We’re using our voices to make a change.” Beyond spurring change in the criminal justice system, the retelling of their story also acts as a salve according to Salaam. “Allow us to be in front of people to tell our story. When we tell our story there is healing. We need that healing over and over again.”

President Mason shares a laugh with the panel
President Mason shares a laugh with the panel

“I’m going to use my platform and my opportunity to educate that next generation—a generation that sees the world differently and operates differently.” —President Karol V. Mason

Learning from the Past
As the president of a College that is educating the next generation of advocates for justice, Mason assured Richardson, Salaam, and Santana that she and the College would do its part to make sure an injustice like this doesn’t happen again. “Many of our John Jay College students are going to go out to become law enforcement officers and prosecutors with a mindset focused on justice and fairness. We’re going to make sure they don’t repeat these mistakes,” said Mason. “I’m going to use my platform and my opportunity to educate that next generation—a generation that sees the world differently and operates differently. I need your help to do that. We need all of you who have been exonerated to be in your communities and tell your stories. Keep reminding people of who you are and what happened to you so that they understand and see the real person, not just the statistic.”