Yusef Salaam came to speak about his experiences in the criminal justice system in Armstrong Student Center on last night, following the presentation of Ken Burns documentary, “The Central Park Five”.
Salaam is one-fifth of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a white female jogger in Central Park in the early morning of April 19, 1989. He came to campus as part of a spring tour for the Ohio Innocence Project-undergraduate (OIP-u), which comprised most of the audience.
The student law organization, led by president and senior Ariel Shuster, raises awareness of the frequency of wrongful imprisonment.
“This is not just the story of one person,” Salaam said. “This is the story of a lot of people’s lives.”
Salaam was the only one out of the five who did not make a false confession, which prosecutors used to send the teenagers to prison as adults.
“The only crime I committed that night was [that] I hopped the turnstile,” Salaam said in the documentary.
After over 24 hours of interrogation, the police had coerced the five, who had been in Central Park that night, to falsely confess. Years later, the Central Park Five — Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray — do not hold animosity toward one another, and even wrote to one another while in prison.
The real rapist, Matias Reyes, came forward 13 years later after meeting one of the Five, Korey Wise. Reyes was a serial rapist, who continued to rape while the case against the Central Park Five persisted despite a lack of physical evidence.
A day after the five teenagers were brought in, Donald Trump took out full-page advertisements in The New York Times demanding they receive the death penalty. Salaam compared Trump’s reaction to the Central Park Five case to Trump’s reaction when his cabinet member was accused of domestic abuse.
“He said, ‘hey, let’s not rush to judge. People’s lives are being destroyed from a mere accusation,’” Salaam said. “Where was that talk back in 1989 when he pulled out the ads calling for the death penalty, for a mere accusation?”
He also read aloud hate mail his mother received while he was in prison and commented on the media’s treatment of the case. Over 400 articles covered the case at the time.
“People turn cameras on the reaction, rather than what causes the reaction,” Salaam said.
Salaam highlighted corruption in the criminal justice system and pointed to criminal law loopholes in his speech.
“Laws made because of the Central Park Five case are still around, even after the case was overturned,” Salaam said.
Salaam also responded to the controversy at Miami over the recent use of racial slurs.
“It is definitely not enough to not make a statement, because other schools and other institutions have suspended students like that,” Salaam said.
He also quoted the African saying:
“The child that is rejected by the village will burn down the village just to feel the warmth,” Salaam said. “That is a scary thought.”
The event at Miami was Salaam’s second tour stop. He is scheduled to speak at five other Ohio college campuses with an OIP-u presence.
Ava DuVernay, a high-profile filmmaker, is also releasing a five-part docuseries about the Central Park Five on Netflix next year.