Sixth Teenager Charged in Central Park Jogger Case to Be Exonerated

A forgotten co-defendant of the Central Park Five who, like them, is accused of raping a jogger in a case that rocked New York City and the nation, is expected to be overturned. related judgment on Monday.

The case against Five – a teenager of color who was innocent in the 1989 sexual assault of a white woman but was convicted based on false confessions made by police – continues to determine attitudes around racism in the criminal justice system, the media, and society at large. But the story of the sixth man – Steven Lopez – was previously ignored.

Mr. Lopez, who was arrested at the age of 15, made a deal with prosecutors shortly before his trial two years later to avoid a more serious rape charge, instead pleading guilty to robbing a man. running athlete.

Like his peers, he went to prison; In general, the group has served nearly 45 years. Shortly after the real attacker in the Central Park rape was identified in 2002, authorities overturned rape convictions against five men. They won a $41 million settlement from New York City and became the subject of movies, books, and TV show.

But Mr. Lopez, now 48, has not received any settlement money or media attention, and his story is little known.

His robbery conviction is expected to be heard in a Manhattan court on Monday. The pardon will be the first under Manhattan district attorney Alvin L. Bragg, who vowed during his two years on the campaign trail to advance the work of the office’s wrongful convictions unit. .

An attorney for Mr. Lopez declined to comment ahead of the hearing. It is unclear if Mr. Lopez had contact with the men sometimes referred to as the Five Exonerated Five: Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam.

“We talk about Central Park Five, Exonerated Five, but there are six people in that indictment,” Mr. Bragg said. “And five other people were charged, their convictions vacated. And now is the time to vacate Mr. Lopez’s responsibilities. “

Lopez was 15 years old when he was arrested and charged with raping a jogger, investment banker Trisha Meili, 28. Mr. Lopez also faces charges in connection with the robbery of a male jogger in the park that night, April 19, 1989.

As a result of a review of his case conducted by the Manhattan district attorney’s post-conviction justice unit, Lopez was arrested in Central Park after a series of assaults, including a The male runner was thrown to the ground and beaten.

Police detained the teenagers in one area for hours, pushing them to detail what had happened in the park. The teenagers, aged 14 to 16, said they were led to blame each other for the crime.

Mr. Lopez was in his cell for about 20 hours before being questioned. His parents, who were not native English speakers, were present, but no interpreters were provided. After nearly two and a half hours of questioning, a detective wrote down a statement that Mr. Lopez and his father signed.

The statement places Mr. Lopez on the scene of the attack on a male runner. But despite vigorous questioning, Mr. Lopez refused to say he was involved in the assault on Ms. Meili.

While several other teenagers, interrogated with similar compulsion, say Mr Lopez committed crimes against both male and female runners, there is no forensic evidence to tie him to the assault on the male runner. the set. However, forensic investigators have determined a hair found on Mr. Lopez’s clothing may be that of the female runner. (It was later determined that the initial investigation’s analysis of the hairs was unreliable.)

Ms. Meili was severely beaten and left to die. Details of the crime have horrified New York City and raised racial tensions. Mr. Lopez and five other boys were charged with rape. (Ms. Meili remained anonymous for more than a decade after the attack before being identified; she was opposed the settlement and believed that many people attacked her.)

The teenagers arrested that night, all Black or Hispanic, were seen as symptoms of a city in turmoil filled with crime. They were condemned by police, prosecutors, the media and a prominent real estate developer, Donald J. Trump, who posted full-page ads in the city’s newspapers calling for them to be. face the death penalty. They are often referred to as “beasts” or “wolf packs”, as if they were not human.

Their trials took place the year before Rodney King was brutally beaten, and many Americans at the time were ignorant of the extent to which police misconduct and coercive tactics could lead to to admit wrongdoing.

It was decided that six teenagers accused of rape would be tried under three separate proceedings. Mr. McCray, Mr. Salaam and Mr. Santana were sentenced on August 18, 1990. Mr. Richardson and Mr. Wise were convicted on December 11, 1990.

A month later, just as the trial was scheduled to begin, prosecutors offered Lopez a plea deal in which he would plead guilty to first-degree robbery in exchange for the rape charge. Mr. Lopez agreed and was sentenced to between one and a half to four and a half years in state prison.

In February 2002, DNA evidence indicated that an unprovoked suspect, Matias Reyes, attacked the jogger. Mr. Reyes, who is serving a sentence for a separate rape and murder case, confess the crime.

That year, the Manhattan district attorney at the time, Robert M. Morgenthau, moved to rape case dismissed against the objections of police chiefs. In the litigation that followed the pardon of the Central Park Five Court, it emerged that several people who had been prepared to testify against Mr. Lopez had denied their earlier claims of guilt. One said he only named Mr. Lopez after being told his name by police detectives.

In 2014, Central Park Five received $41 million from New York City. Once, five teenagers represented a city that was spiraling out of control. But their story has become a symbol of the excessive intrusion of the justice system, the gullibility of the media, and the ingrained racism of American society against black and brown youth.

Until Monday, Mr. Lopez had been a forgotten element in their story. He was not featured in the 2012 documentary Ken Burns made about the case, and none of the actors who played him appear in Ava DuVernay’s 2019 drama about the case, “When they see us.”

Mr. Lopez’s story was dropped, in part because he pleaded guilty. (Another defendant, Michael Briscoe, pleaded guilty to assaulting a third runner; his sentence still stands.) He served a sentence of more than three years and did not appeal his conviction. me.

Instead, nearly 20 years after the co-defendants were pardoned, Lopez quietly referred himself back to the Manhattan district attorney’s office in February 2021, asking for a review of his conviction. The following month, the office agreed and began looking into the case.

Along the way, Mr. Bragg, who spoke frequently about the Exonerated Five’s experience, made the refurbished unit a central tenet of his campaign and upon taking office he recruited Terri S. Rosenblatt, famous in New York legal circles for her. work on criminal and civil rights cases, to lead it.

Ms. Rosenblatt said that Mr. Lopez’s pardon was notable as an example of something that happens all too often: an innocent defendant pleads guilty.

“We talk about wrongful convictions a lot, but there can also be false confessions,” she said. “And our current understanding of people who make false confessions translates to people who will even sometimes make a false admission in court to a crime they didn’t commit.”

Bragg, who in January became the first Black Manhattan district attorney, was a 15-year-old teenager living in Harlem when the Central Park case first began to stir. He recalled the young men’s experiences with ease, saying he played basketball and rode a bus through the same park, where the events that led to their arrest took place.

Mr. Bragg was a friend of Ken Thompson, the first Black Brooklyn district attorney and who, before his death in 2016became known for the work of a unit that reproduces dubious convictions.

Mr Bragg said such work was “the cornerstone of judicial administration”. And he stressed that, in a time of public safety concern – as was the case in 1989 and again today – statements like these by Mr. Lopez can help restore confidence in the office. capacity of the legal system.

“I couldn’t be humble enough to be able to really replicate that work,” he said.

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