Thirty-three years ago, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson — both 14 at the time — entered Central Park not knowing their lives would be changed forever. The boys were ultimately wrongly convicted of an attack on a jogger in the park that took place that night, together with three other teens — Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray.
On Monday, Mr. Santana and Mr. Richardson returned to the park for the first time since that evening to witness a historic moment: the unveiling of the “Gate of the Exonerated.”
“It was just so horrific and terrifying to come here, and even though I live not too far away, it was just that feeling of the last time I was here… I never returned home,” Mr. Richardson said. “[Coming back here] is a mix of emotions, but it’s the start of building something here. To have the Gate of the Exonerated here … it’s very powerful to be here and I’m still taking it in.”
The gate — the first to receive a new name since 1862 — marks the same entrance where the teens had entered the park on the night of the attack. The men, known today as the Exonerated Five, had their convictions overturned in 2002 and are among the nearly 320 New Yorkers who have been exonerated to date and to whom the new gate is dedicated.
“I’m here with my family, I’m here with my friends, I’m here with my wife, and we are here because we persevered,” said Mr. Salaam, whose mother Sharonne was a driving force behind the push to commemorate the injustices her son and others have had to overcome.
The new gate is the result of collaborative efforts between members of the local community board, members of the Central Park Conservancy, advocates for justice, and those who have been impacted by the criminal legal system.
“… it’s very powerful to be here and I’m still taking it in.”
Mr. Santana described the gate honoring exonerees as a symbol of a “brotherhood nobody wants to be part of” and gave shout outs to other exonerated New Yorkers in the crowd, including Jeffrey Deskovic, an exoneree who became an attorney.
While the gate’s new moniker etched in sandstone is a marker of progress and a physical reminder to not let history repeat itself, New York must take further steps to prevent the kinds of injustices that happened to the Exonerated Five and hundreds of other New Yorkers from happening again.
“Official recognition of wrongful conviction is a key component in truth, reconciliation, and ultimately reform. Today should act as a reminder that, although some reform has come to pass in New York, the conditions that led to these miscarriages of justice have remained largely unchanged,” said Innocence Project Director of Policy Rebecca Brown. “Our unforgiving system still denies innocent people convicted of crimes who plead guilty the opportunity to prove their innocence if there is no DNA evidence in their cases.”
Help Wrongfully Convicted New Yorkers Prove Their Innocence
In 2018, New York passed a law requiring police custodial interrogations to be recorded from beginning to end. Law enforcement can no longer just record a carefully packaged confession at the end of an otherwise unrecorded interrogation as it did in the case of Mr. Wise, whose false confession was recorded under such circumstances. Full recordings are crucial to assessing whether a confession was coerced and help judges and juries assess reliability. Even this critical law, however, has limitations, including a litany of allowable exceptions to recording certain interrogations.
If New York truly wants to ensure there is never another Exonerated Five, the state must pass new laws that will advance justice and fairness. This upcoming legislative session, the state has the opportunity to do just that by passing the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, the Right2Remain Silent Act, and a bill that would ban deception during interrogations.
Currently, New York law enforcement can still use deceptive tactics during interrogations. That means that law enforcement officials can legally lie about the existence of incriminating evidence and make false promises of leniency. These are the same tactics that led some of the Exonerated Five to make false confessions 30 years ago. The teens were interrogated for up to 30 hours — an unimaginably long period of time for anyone, let alone a child — and did not have legal counsel during those interrogations.
Although the Exonerated Five endured these injustices over three decades ago, they would have no more protections today than 30 years ago if faced with the same situation, save for a recorded interrogation. Children in New York still do not have the right to counsel during an interrogation. Instead, the onus is on them to request counsel, which few children would know to do. There is also no limit on the length of interrogations, despite research demonstrating that protracted interrogations yield unreliable outcomes.
Furthermore, despite the fact that approximately 25% of exonerees were wrongly convicted in cases involving guilty pleas, New Yorkers who falsely plead guilty to a crime cannot bring their innocence cases back to court unless the cases contain DNA evidence. This restriction leaves countless innocent New Yorkers without a pathway to seek justice and clear their names.
In 2023, New York has the opportunity to ensure that its residents have access to true justice and are safeguarded against future wrongful convictions by ending deceptive interrogation practices, requiring the right to counsel for juveniles — at minimum — and building stronger pathways to true justice for wrongly convicted people.
“Today we’re gonna celebrate. Tonight, we’re gonna party … but tomorrow we’re right back to fighting for justice,” said Mr. Santana.
@innocence This new gate in #centralpark is an important marker of history and progress. #exonerated5 #centralpark5 ♬ original sound – The Innocence Project
Watch the unveiling ceremony