by Daleel Jabir Muhammad
NEW YORK—Near the entrance of the soon to be “Gate of the Exonerated,” where five teenagers were falsely accused, convicted, and demeaned in the media as the Central Park Five for crimes they were innocent and later exonerated for, a recent press conference was held. State Senator Zellnor Myrie, Assemblyman Clyde Vanel and Harlem Senator-Elect Cordelle Cleare gathered Dec. 15 to introduce three bills to, in part, protect youth in New York City from suffering the plight of the five teenagers who in 1989 were wrongfully incarcerated and convicted in New York City for a rape of a White woman in Central Park. Three decades ago, Raymond Santana,14; Korey Wise, 16; Kevin Richardson, 14; Yusef Salaam, 15 and Antron McCray, 15 were castigated and vilified for a crime they did not commit.
After spending years in prison, the young men were cleared by a confession from a serial rapist Matias Reyes who admitted to being the sole attacker of Trisha Melli, the victim of the sexual assault in Central Park.
Senator Zellnor Myrie addressed the need to reform the criminal justice system in New York for it lacks accountability and transparency and must be overhauled to make it fair and more just. The first bill he introduced was The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, which would allow for post-conviction discovery that will allow counsel to challenge a conviction and to disallow a guilty plea on other than new DNA evidence that can overturn a conviction.
“We are collectively demanding today that not one more person suffer under any wrongful conviction,” he said.
The second bill was introduced to correct and remove the technicality allowing police and law enforcement the right to lie during interrogation. This bill would dismiss any evidence that comes from interrogation where a law enforcement officer lied to get a confession. The third bill is the Youth Right to Remain Silent Act.
“This bill says no longer will officers be able to interrogate a young person and have them waive their Miranda Rights until they have spoken to their attorney. Under this bill any evidence obtained without counsel present will be dismissed,” explained Senator Myrie. He explained the need and purpose of the three bills pending in the state legislature.
Assemblyman Clyde Vanel from Queens is one of the co-sponsors of the bills. “It’s a shame that here in New York State that an innocent person can spend even one day in jail, and most times those who are wrongly convicted look a certain way (Black and Brown),” he pointed out. He vowed to work with others in both Houses in Albany to make sure that these three bills are passed and signed by the governor.
Newly elected State Senator Cordell Cleare spoke and gave her support of the pending legislation to protect youth from being wrongfully incarcerated. “This is a serious situation where these young men were vilified, demonized and their families were disrespected. This has to stop!” she said.
Senate-elect Cleare pointed out similarities between the Central Park case and another historic travesty. “Emmett Till to the days of the Exonerated Five, some people used threats and intimidation to threaten our youth to confession. We as a community must continue to stand with these young men and others like them being tricked into confessions,” she added.
Three of the Exonerated Five were present at the press conference and spoke on the injustices they endured. Yusef Salaam recalled that Central Park is a crime scene that displayed he and his friends as the “scum of the Earth.” But he gave praise to Allah (God) that he doesn’t look like what he went through over the years.
Raymond Santana said, “this is an opportunity for us to step forward, make our voices heard until we get these bills passed for those who it has effected, those who are oppressed and those who passed away.”
Kevin Richardson recalled the indignities and living with the label from the press being called a “wolf pack” and how people angrily stated they deserved to be hung from the tree in Central Park. “I can’t imagine another fragile young person to go through what we went through. We have had enough of this and this we must change,” he said.
Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusef Salaam, held back emotions to not recount the travesty of justice her family suffered over the years. But encouraged supporters at the press conference to fight for victory until these bills are passed for not only the wrongfully convicted and grossly incarcerated youth, but “to fight for our people and start fighting with me until the wrongs are made right.”
Student Minister Arthur Muhammad of the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No.7 in Harlem said, “it is profoundly fitting for these victims of the systemic injustice that NYC Police and courts are infamously known for, to be advocates for changing the laws that will potentially benefit others to avoid what injustices they suffered.” Student Min. Muhammad has known Yusef Salaam since he was 14.
“I pray that these three bills are passed expeditiously so that no other Black, Brown or any other youth can be wrongfully convicted and to have their young lives damaged by an inhumane system of justice and degradation like the Exonerated Five had to go through for all of those years,” he said.
Senator Myrie pointed out that the legislative calendar is from January to June and “we have until that time to get these bills passed.”
“It is our goal to get the public’s attention and support,” added the state senator.
“We want our colleagues in the State Senate and the State Assembly to get on board with these bills, that has already been introduced and get this criminal reform bill done in that time. We expect it to be passed so that in 2022 the 20th anniversary of the Exonerated Five freedom we can celebrate with the new legislation being passed,” said Senator Myrie.