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Yusef Salaam

Other New York False Confession Cases
On the night of April 19, 1989, a series of violent incidents occurred in New York City’s Central Park. At around 9 p.m., several teenagers accosted a bike rider. A few minutes later, a man was robbed and assaulted. A taxi driver said several teenagers threw rocks at his car. Around 9:30, four male joggers were attacked at the northern end of the path that runs around the Central Park Reservoir. One of those men, a 40-year-old teacher named John Loughlin, was knocked to the ground, kicked, hit with a pipe, and robbed of his Walkman. Loughlin briefly lost consciousness. When he came to, he called the police. They had already received reports of the chaotic events in the park.

Around 10 p.m., two plainclothes officers in an unmarked van were near an entrance to the park on Central Park West and 102nd Street and saw a group of Black and Hispanic teenage boys. As the officers approached, most of the group ran, but the officers arrested 15-year-old Steven Lopez and 14-year-old Raymond Santana, charging them with unlawful assembly and taking them to the Central Park Precinct.

Around the same time, other officers arrested Kevin Richardson, who was also 14 years old, and several other teenagers. They were also brought to the Central Park Precinct, which is on 86th Street at the south end of the reservoir. The teenagers spent the night in the precinct’s holding cell.

At around 1:30 a.m. on April 20, two men walking in the park found an unconscious woman in woods near the 102nd Street traverse road. The woman, who was near death, had been bound with her T-shirt, beaten and raped. She would not remember anything about the attack.

The 29-year-old woman, who was white and an investment banker, came to be known during the investigation as the “Central Park Jogger.” Her real name was Trisha Meili, and she later identified herself. The outrage over her assault and its apparent connection to the other incidents in Central Park on April 19 would become a national story, filtered through the lenses of race and class, and introduce a new word to the American vocabulary: wilding.

The police began the interview process with Lopez, Santana, and the other teenagers, but there was a hitch for many of the boys. Suspects under 16 years old could not be interviewed outside the presence of a parent or guardian. The police had to find and notify parents, and, in the hours between these initial arrests and the parents arriving at the precinct, Meili’s assault was reported. This changed the investigation.

Richardson was interviewed first. In a statement given at 9:40 a.m. April 20, 1989, he said that he and other boys had thrown rocks at a taxi cab and beaten a man. He said the group chased the female jogger and knocked her down. Then, several boys – Santana, Lopez, and 15-year-old Antron McCray – started pulling off her clothes. “Everybody was feeling on her,” he said. Richardson said McCray had sex with her.

The police already knew McCray’s name. A boy arrested with Richardson had told police that he knew who committed the murder; “It was Antron.” McCray came to the Central Park Precinct with his mother at about 11:30 p.m. on April 19. He was questioned and allowed to leave.

The police went to McCray’s apartment at 11:30 a.m. on April 20, and McCray and his parents returned to the Central Park Precinct for questioning. McCray was quickly taken to another precinct, and, three hours later, police began questioning him again about what happened in Central Park. He mentioned an attack on a homeless man, but he did not mention the attack on the female jogger. The police told him he was not being truthful. McCray ended up saying he had participated in the sexual assault but had not raped the woman. He had only lain on top of her.

At 4:40 p.m. on April 20, Santana signed a statement written by a detective that said he and others had attacked Loughlin. Three hours later, the statement was amended to include the sexual assault. Santana said that he saw Lopez and Richardson attack the woman and watched Lopez rape her and then hit her twice with a brick. Santana said in the statement that he felt her breasts.

Lopez was not questioned until 6:15 p.m. on April 20 and later gave a statement to the police and then to an assistant district attorney. In both statements, he placed himself at the scene of the attack on Loughlin, implicating another teenager, J.R., as the ringleader. He said he knew Richardson and McCray, but had not met Santana until they were arrested together. Lopez denied any knowledge of the sexual assault. An assistant district attorney repeatedly asked him why all these other people would say he took part in the rape if it wasn’t true. Lopez said he didn’t know. “They probably just trying to get out of this,” he said.

During the investigation, two other names had come up: Korey Wise, who was 16 years old, and Yusef Salaam, who was 15 years old. The police brought them in for questioning on April 20, at about 10:45 p.m. Because of Wise’s age, he could be questioned without his parents.

The police would later say that Salaam misrepresented his age, stating he was 16 years old, which would have allowed him to be interviewed without a parent. He was interviewed by a detective, who wrote down a statement that said that Salaam hit the female jogger with a pipe and that others, including Richardson, sexually assaulted her. In the statement, Salaam said he felt the woman’s breasts but didn’t rape her. The interview was halted after an attorney who was a family friend showed up at the precinct. Salaam never signed the statement.

Wise was taken to the Central Park Precinct. On April 21, officers took him into the park to look at the crime scene involving Meili. Later, he gave a statement that said Richardson, Lopez, and Santana assaulted the woman while he hid and watched. He said Lopez and Santana masturbated on the woman after they raped her, and that Richardson hit her with a rock. Wise said that Salaam told him about assaulting a man and hitting him in the face with a bar. He also said that Salaam appeared to know something about the sexual assault of the female jogger.

On May 1, 1989, Donald Trump, then a real estate developer in the city, took out full-page ads in New York’s major newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. He wrote in part: “Mayor [Ed] Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer.” Salaam would later say that his family received death threats after the ad ran.

On May 4, 1989, the six teenagers were indicted and charged with attempted second-degree murder, first-degree rape, first-degree sodomy, first-degree sexual abuse, first-degree assault, second-degree assault, first-degree robbery, second degree robbery, and first-degree riot.

Loughlin identified J.R. as one of the teenagers who attacked him, but he did not identify any of the other defendants. (J.R. pled guilty on October 5, 1989 to first-degree robbery and was sentenced as a youthful offender. He agreed to testify against the six defendants but was never called to do so.)

Police combed the sprawling crime scene where the attack on Meili took place. They found a rock with blood and hair and sent this material to the FBI for analysis. The FBI said it could not perform a DNA analysis on the sample but that ABO typing said the blood was consistent with Meili’s blood type. The hair was also found to be consistent with her hair.

Police found semen on one of Meili’s socks. It was compared against DNA samples of the defendants and of material taken from a cervical swab of the victim. Prior to trial, the defendants were excluded as contributors, but the genetic material on the swab and the sock appeared to have come from the same source.

In addition, a pubic hair found on the sock was examined under microscope and found to be inconsistent with the defendants and any other persons whom the defendants had mentioned in their statements.

The police also examined the clothing of the defendants. They found nine hairs on Richardson’s clothes. A forensic scientist said three of those hairs were consistent with Meili’s hair. Twelve hairs were found on Lopez’s clothes. One was said to be consistent with Meili.

Prior to trial, the defendants moved to suppress the statements they made to the police. Wise argued that the police had slapped him and threatened him while in custody. Salaam disputed that he had told police he was 16 years old and said that he should never have been questioned without a parent. Others said their Miranda rights had not been properly explained. Justice Thomas Galligan of New York County Supreme Court denied these motions.

McCray, Santana and Salaam went to trial first, beginning June 25, 1990. In her opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer said the defendants had gone on a rampage through Central Park, attacking people at random. She said the three teenagers had “brutally beat and raped [the female jogger], and then left her to die naked and stripped in the dark and empty woods.”

At the trial, a series of witnesses described being attacked or harassed by Black and Hispanic teenagers in the park on April 19, 1989. None identified the defendants. Loughlin testified about being attacked as he ran around the reservoir. Meili also testified. She described the injuries she received but was still unable to recall any details about the attack itself.

Dwight Adams, a DNA analyst at the FBI crime laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, testified that a comparison between the semen samples from the victim and the crime scene had been inconclusive. “The result of our analysis was too weak and not adequate enough to make a positive interpretation,” he said. There had been four tests, Adams said. One was too faint to draw conclusions; the other three were even fainter and did not register results.

But under cross-examination, Adams appeared to backtrack. “'Would it be correct to say the result of even the faint test excluded my client, Antron McCray?” asked attorney Michael Joseph. “Yes, it would,” replied Adams. “And did it exclude all of the other defendants?” he asked. “Yes,” said Adams.

Nicholas Petraco, who had recently retired as a forensic examiner with the police department, testified about his analysis of hair and soil samples. Petraco testified that he compared soil samples taken from Meili’s crime scene with soil particles found on the clothing of McCray, Santana, and Richardson. Asked about the results, Petraco said: “My conclusions were that they were similar in mineral content and composition, and the questioned sample could have originated from the source of the known sample.”

With regards to the hair samples, Petraco first testified that the jagged hair found on the rock was consistent with Meili’s hair and with the rock being used as a weapon. (Several of the teenagers had said the woman was hit with a brick, but no evidence supported this statement.) Petraco then testified that three hairs found on Richardson’s clothing were consistent with and “could have come” from Meili’s head and pubic area.

Of the three defendants, only Salaam testified. He said he took no part in either attack and had been in the park by himself that night. He admitted to having a metal pipe with him but said he had been holding it for a friend.

During closing arguments, Lederer urged jurors to focus on the brutality of the attack on the female jogger and not get distracted by the inconsistencies in the statements made by the defendants. “There were so many people there that in the chaos of what was going on and in the rush not to miss out or get caught, are you surprised that the defendants can't remember exact details?” she asked the jury, “What do you think their attention was focused on? The wildness of what was going on.”

Attorneys for the three defendants said there was no scientific evidence connecting their clients to either assault, and the police pressured the teenagers to confess.

After 10 days of deliberations, on August 18, 1990, the jury convicted each defendant of first-degree assault and first-degree rape in the attack on the female jogger; first-degree robbery and three assault charges for the attack on the male jogger; second-degree assault for an unrelated attack; and first-degree riot. Based on the defendants’ ages, Justice Galligan set aside all the convictions other than the first-degree rape and robbery, and sentenced each defendant to between five and 10 years in prison.

Richardson and Wise went to trial next, beginning October 22, 1990. Much of the state’s evidence was similar to the evidence presented at the first trial. But prosecutors also had a new witness. A woman named Melody Jackson, whose brother was friends with Wise, said that she had spoken with Wise when he called her family from jail. She testified that she told Wise she could not believe what she heard about him having sex with the female jogger. Jackson said that Wise responded that he didn’t have sex with the woman; he had only held and fondled her leg. On cross-examination, Colin Moore, Wise’s attorney, questioned Jackson on why she waited so long to come forward. “How much are you getting for coming into this courtroom?” he asked. “Nothing, nothing,” said Jackson.

Petraco, the forensic examiner, again testified about the soil and hair samples taken from Richardson. He also testified about the single hair found on Lopez and said that it was “similar in all microscopic and physical characteristics to [Meili’s] known head hair specimen … and could have originated from that known hair specimen.” He testifed that he was "able to state those opinions to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty."

Wise testified, and said the police pushed him to confess and told him what to say. During cross-examination, he became angry with Lederer’s questions and left the witness stand. Justice Galligan told him to return or his testimony would be stricken from the record.

During closing arguments, Lederer used the hair evidence to tie Richardson to the crime scene, although she appeared to overstate what Petraco had actually said. “He found on Kevin Richardson’s underpants a hair that matched the head hair” of the victim, she said. A hair from his T-shirt “matched” the victim’s pubic hair, she said, and the third hair, from his jeans, “was consistent and similar to” to the victim’s hair.

The jury reached a verdict on December 11, 1990. It convicted Richardson on all eight counts. It convicted Wise of first-degree assault, first-degree sexual abuse, and first-degree riot. Because of Richardson’s age, Justice Galligan set aside his convictions except for attempted murder in the second degree, and first-degree robbery, rape, and sodomy. Wise, the oldest of the defendants, received a sentence of five to 15 years. Richardson received a sentence of five to 10 years.

Lopez was the last defendant facing trial. While several of the defendants had described his participation in the rape in vicious terms, Lopez had not made a statement implicating himself in the sexual assault, and the statements of the other defendants could not be used against him without their testimony.

On January 30, 1991 Lopez pled guilty to first-degree robbery in the attack on Loughlin. The other charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to 18 to 54 months in prison.

Salaam, McCray, Wise, and Richardson all unsuccessfully appealed their convictions.

Lopez was released from prison in 1993. Santana was released in 1995, McCray in 1996, and Salaam and Richardson in 1997. Wise, because he was the oldest, was not released until August 2002.

In 2001, Wise was at Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York, when he met an inmate named Matias Reyes. Reyes would later tell investigators that he realized that Wise was in prison for the attack on the Central Park jogger. In early 2002, Reyes told a prison official that he alone had sexually assaulted Meili. He was interviewed by a corrections supervisor, and then his information was forwarded to the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

At the time, Reyes was 30 years old, and serving a sentence of 33 1/3 years to life for a series of rapes, murder, and robbery committed between June 11 and August 5, 1989. He had pled guilty after he was found to be a contributor to DNA evidence collected from the victims and the crime scenes.

After Reyes came forward, evidence from his convictions and from the Central Park case was sent to the FBI. On May 8, 2002, the FBI told prosecutors that Reyes was a contributor to the DNA found in the sock at the Meili crime scene. Later mitochondrial DNA testing reported that Reyes was the source of the pubic hair found on Meili’s sock.

During a series of interviews with investigators, Reyes described the sexual assaults he committed during the spring of 1989, including one that occurred two days before his attack on Meili. Reyes provided details about how he stalked Meili and hit her in the back of the head with a heavy stick as she jogged through the park. Investigators would later write that his description of the attack was “accurate.”

One of Meili’s injuries was a wound on her left cheek that appeared to resemble a cross with curved arms. At the time of his arrest, Reyes owned a ring that had a figure of Christ raised on the flat surface of a cross. The ring had been placed into evidence. A medical examiner compared the ring to photos of Meili’s wound and said, “The patterned injury over the prominence of the victim's left cheek bone is consistent with a left fist blow, striking at an acute angle, partially imprinting the image of approximately half of the prominent parts of Mr. Reyes’s ring on her skin.”

The hair evidence was also re-examined. Special Agent Douglas Deedrick, the Unit Chief of the FBI’s Information and Evidence section, said he disagreed with Petraco’s trial testimony regarding hairs found on Richardson; the hairs were not suitable for comparison and could not be used to link Richardson to Meili, Deedrick said. In addition, DNA was extracted from these hairs, and none of the DNA matched Meili’s. The hair that had been found on Lopez could not be found for retesting. DNA samples from the bloody rock were also retested and found to be inconsistent with Meili’s DNA. The reinvestigation said contamination was a possibility.

On September 10, 2002, attorneys for McCray, Richardson, and Santana filed motions asking for a judge to vacate their convictions based on this new evidence. Wise and Salaam filed similar motions later. A judge gave the district attorney’s office until December 5, 2002, to decide whether to support these motions.

On December 5, 2002, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau moved to vacate the convictions and dismiss all the charges. The motion said the new evidence supported a theory that Reyes – and Reyes alone – sexually assaulted Meili.

The statements made by the defendants, the motion said, didn’t line up, and they were often lacking in detail or contradicted by the forensic evidence in the case. “Each defendant, in his statement, minimized his participation in the rape, and none acknowledged having had intercourse with the victim,” the motion said. “However, all but Raymond Santana claimed to have seen multiple individuals raping her. Despite that, the DNA of only one person was found. That required the jury to believe that, in a gang of teenaged rapists, only one ejaculated.”

While the reinvestigation focused almost exclusively on the sexual assault, the district attorney’s review said that the convictions for rioting and for the assault on Loughlin also needed to be vacated because prosecutors had joined the crimes as part of a pattern of malicious conduct. “It is commonplace for defendants to be charged in a single indictment with crimes of very different levels of gravity,” the motion said. “The law permits it, and correctly presumes that juries can and will follow instructions requiring that they weigh evidence of guilt as to different counts separately. Thus, in and of itself, the relative seriousness of the jogger attack plainly would not merit setting aside the juries’ verdicts as to other charges. In this case, however, other factors must also be weighed. The crimes the defendants were charged with were not widely separated by time or location, either from each other or from the attack on the jogger; all occurred within a single hour, at the northern end of Central Park. In effect, all were considered to be part of a single incident.”

On December 19, 2002, New York County Supreme Court Justice Charles Tejada threw out the convictions for the five defendants and then dismissed the charges.

While there was celebration in the courtroom, many of the relatives in the courtroom were also angry at the harm the defendants had suffered.

“I am not happy about this day. You can't give me back what you took from me,” said Deloris Wise, Korey Wise’s mother. “He was 16,” she told the New York Daily News. “You took him. You put him in jail and you turned him into something I never thought he'd become.”

After their exonerations, the five men filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the City of New York, the New York Police Department, and the New York County District Attorney’s Office. In September 2014, a U.S. District Court judge approved a settlement, paying the five men just under $41 million. McCray, Richardson, Salaam, and Santana each received $7.125 million; Wise received $12.25 million. They also shared $3.9 million in state compensation.

Meili wrote a book about her ordeal, I am the Central Park Jogger, which was published in 2003. Salaam wrote a memoir, Better not Bitter, which was published in 2021. The case has been the subject of numerous documentaries and television productions, including the Netflix miniseries, When They See Us. Lopez’s conviction for the assault on Loughlin was not reviewed as part of the 2002 reinvestigation. He had pled guilty, and the rape charge had been dismissed.

In 2021, Lopez’s attorney, Eric Renfroe, asked the district attorney’s office to review the conviction. The review began on March 2, 2021. At the time, Cyrus Vance was New York County District Attorney. Alvin Bragg became the new district attorney in early 2022, and his office’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit, headed by Terri Rosenblatt, completed the review.

On July 25, 2022, Rosenblatt and Renfroe filed a joint motion to vacate Lopez’s conviction and dismiss his charge.

According to the review, six witnesses – including Richardson, Santana, and McCray – had recanted their statements implicating Lopez in either one or both of the assaults. J.R., who had been identified by Loughlin and pled guilty in that attack, said in a 2013 deposition that Lopez wasn’t present when he and several others beat and robbed Loughlin. J.R. said police and prosecutors pressured him to place Lopez at the scene.

Richardson said in 2013 that in 1989 he had falsely identified Lopez as participating in the attack on Loughlin and that he did not know Lopez prior to the detectives giving him Lopez’s name. Santana said in 2013 that he never saw Lopez hit Loughlin and that his accusation against Lopez was “a lie.” C.T., who had told police that Lopez had participated in the sexual assault, said in a 2010 deposition that he gave Lopez’s name to police so that the officers would leave him alone. C.T. said he was better friends with some of the other teenagers, and he “chose Steven as the sacrificial lamb.”

Defendants who plead guilty instead of seeking a trial are presumed to make a voluntary and intelligent choice, the joint motion said, but that was not possible in Lopez’s case. He was 17 years old when he pled, facing a storm of pretrial publicity and the certainty that false evidence would be presented against him.

“As the People acknowledged in the 2002 memorandum supporting vacatur of the trial defendants’ convictions, their statements to police following their arrest cannot be parsed into reliable and unreliable portions. Instead, the reliability of all of the statements is undermined by the third-party evidence that none of the originally-indicted defendants were guilty of rape. Likewise, allegations that Mr. Lopez participated in the robbery of the male jogger cannot be credited any more than the statements accusing him of the rape of the female jogger.”

After a hearing in New York County Supreme Court on July 25, 2022, Chief Administrative Justice Ellen Biben threw out the conviction and dismissed the charge against Lopez.

“I'm sorry for the circumstances that led to this day. But I hope that this morning was a step forward for him and his loved ones,” Bragg said. “Many largely forgot that there were six who were falsely accused of rape of the Central Park jogger. He was questioned in the middle of the night. He was implicated by unreliable forensic evidence, and by statements, and as many of you will recall, he was up against incredible public scrutiny.”

Lopez was quiet during the hearing, speaking only two words – thank you – to Justice Biben. Renfroe told Lopez during the hearing, “It is truly painful to see how this system failed you.”

Detective Gonzalez was involved in the interrogations of three other men whose convictions were overturned and the charges dismissed based on evidence that they falsely confessed: Johnny Hincapie was exonerated in 2017 and Armond McCloud Jr. and Reginald Cameron were exonerated in 2023.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 9/10/2023
State:New York
County:New York
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Assault
Reported Crime Date:1989
Sentence:5 to 10 years
Age at the date of reported crime:15
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes