April 19, 2023

The Arrest of the Central Park Five

The Arrest of the Central Park Five

April 19, 1989. When a female jogger is brutally attacked in New York’s Central Park, five Black and Hispanic youths are wrongfully convicted and sentenced to several years in prison, despite a complete lack of DNA evidence.


Cold Open

CONTENT WARNING: A listener note: this episode contains references to sexual assault. It may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s just after 9 PM on April 19th, 1989.

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Trisha Meili steps out of her apartment block and emerges onto the sidewalk. The 28-year-old has just finished an exhausting twelve-hour shift at the Wall Street investment bank where she works. Now, as she does every night, Trisha is going for a quick jog to clear her mind before bed.

Trisha waves goodbye to the doorman, then sets off running.

She crosses 2nd Avenue and heads uptown.

It’s a pleasant spring evening; the sidewalks and asphalt still warm from the afternoon, and the skyscrapers of Madison Avenue towering overhead. 

Trisha bounds across 5th Avenue and then turns left, entering Central Park.

The contrast between the commotion of the streets and the tranquility of the Park is instantaneous. It’s as if someone has flicked a switch, turning the city on mute. This is Trisha’s favorite stretch on her running route. Apart from a few other joggers, she is completely alone with her thoughts. Trisha runs north alongside the Reservoir, heading deeper into the middle of the Park. She turns onto another path, past baseball diamonds and softball fields, until she reaches the 102nd Street Transverse, a paved road that cuts across the park’s northern woods.

Here, Trisha hesitates. The Transverse is not as well-lit as other parts of her route. Intermittent streetlamps cast pools of flickering orange light, in between which lie long stretches of unbroken darkness. Trisha knows the Park can be a dangerous place at night. But she’s come this way countless times before and never experienced any trouble. So, Trisha takes a breath and runs forward into the shadows.

Trisha Meili’s misgivings prove well-founded. Four hours later, the young woman’s body is spotted in a wooded area close to the 102nd Street Transverse, having been beaten, raped, and left for dead.

Trisha will survive her injuries, but the authorities’ frantic attempt to arrest and convict the person or persons responsible for the vicious assault will create more innocent victims. Five Black and Hispanic boys - aged between 14 and 16 - will be rounded up and coerced by the police into giving false confessions. Despite a lack of evidence, the boys will be convicted and jailed, a gross miscarriage of justice that will cast a shadow over the US legal system for decades following the arrest of the Central Park Five on April 19th, 1989.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 19th, 1989: The Arrest of the Central Park Five.

Act One: The Arrest

It’s the evening of April 19th, 1989; several hours before the Central Park Five will be arrested.  

14-year-old Kevin Richardson walks from school to his home in East Harlem. Kevin is an aspiring trumpet player, and he recently tried out for the school band. If the audition went as well as he thinkshe did, then he might have a chance of making first chair.

Kevin turns onto East 110th Street, his trumpet case bouncing at his side. Up ahead, he spots a group of kids around his age heading west toward Central Park. Kevin recognizes some of them from his apartment complex, and he watches as they spill out into the street, laughing and fooling around.

Kevin glances guiltily at his trumpet. He knows he should probably go home and practice. But his mother also is always telling him he should try to make friends. So after a brief hesitation, Kevin runs home, puts his trumpet in his bedroom, and grabs a jacket. Before leaving, he looks over at his mother, who is sleeping on the couch. He whispers a quick goodbye, then closes the door softly behind him.

By the time Kevin returns to Central Park, the sun has set. He buries his hands deep inside his pockets and wanders through the gloom toward the North Meadow. Kevin can hear laughter and music. He spots a group of teenagers on the path beneath the bridge, illuminated by the street lamps. They seem to be causing trouble, intimidating cyclists, and harassing passers-by. Kevin pauses because this isn’t why he came to the Park; he doesn’t want to get caught up in anything. 

And just as Kevin turns to leave, he hears the wail of a police siren followed by the screech of tires. Red and blue flashing lights cut through the darkness, and the teenagers under the bridge scatter. Kevin is frozen in panic. But when he sees two police officers, wielding guns and flashlights, running toward him, he acts instinctively. He follows the other kids, sprinting as hard as he can. He jumps over a stone wall, but trips and tumbles down a muddy bank. The moment he gets back to his feet, he’s tackled from behind by a police officer. Kevin struggles, his heart pounding. And then he feels a sharp blow to the side of his head and everything goes black.

A few hours later, Kevin sits inside a holding cell at the New York Police Department’s 24th Precinct. Several other boys from the group in the Park are here too, though Kevin doesn’t recognize any of them. He has no idea how long he’s been here. Maybe six hours, seven. The cut above Kevin’s eye where the officer hit him throbs painfully…

Then the door to the holding cell bangs open and a group of police officers and detectives enter. One cop approaches Kevin and tells him to get up, that the detectives need to talk to him. Kevin does as he’s told. He follows the men down a corridor to a small, windowless room, where he’s instructed to take a seat. An officer grabs Kevin’s wrist and handcuffs it to the metal chair.

Then the officer leaves the room leaving the detective behind. He asks Kevin what he was doing in the Park last night. And Kevin answers honestly: he wasn’t doing anything, he was just walking around. But the detective doesn’t seem satisfied with that. He leans forward, close enough for Kevin to smell the stale cigarette smoke on his breath. The detective growls: “A lady was raped in the Park last night, Kevin, and we know you had something to do with it. You’d better start giving me some answers.”

Kevin starts to tremble. He has no idea what this detective is talking about. He just wants all of this to end. But then the detective’s tone softens. He says that if Kevin can provide some useful information, then he’ll be allowed to see his mom and go home. He asks Kevin how he got that scratch above his eye. And Kevin is about to tell the truth: that an officer hit him. But before he can speak, the detective says: “The lady scratched you, didn’t she? She scratched you while you were attacking her.”

Kevin shakes his head, tears now rolling down his cheeks.

The detective's mood shifts again, and he slams his fist on the table, barking: “If you didn’t attack the woman, Kevin, who did? Was it Antron McCray and Raymond Santana?” Kevin has never even heard these names before. But he knows what the detective wants to hear. So, he nods and says yes, it was Antron McCray and Raymond Santana. Theyattacked the lady, theyraped her, and when Kevin tried to intervene, she scratched him.    

This is the story that the detectives coerce Kevin into telling. Meanwhile, in other interrogation rooms, two other boys arrested in the Park, Raymond and Antron - 14 and 15 years old respectively - are telling detectives that it was Kevinwho assaulted the jogger. But it was not Kevin, Raymond, nor Antron. They had nothing to do with the attack, but that doesn’t matter to the police, who are already building a narrative of what theybelieve happened that night.

Within a few hours, two more innocent boys - 15-year-old Yusuf Salaam and 16-year-old Korey Wise - will be arrested and violently interrogated without an attorney present. They will be forced to admit complicity in a crime they had nothing to do with, on a promise that a confession will bring their nightmare to an end. But that will prove to be a lie.

Act Two: The Trial

It’s June 1990, just over a year since the arrest of the Central Park Five.

Inside the New York County District Attorney’s office, assistant DA Elizabeth Lederer stands by the window, pensively stroking her chin. Elizabeth is a dogged and ambitious young prosecutor who was recently handed the biggest job of her career: representing the State of New York in the case against the Central Park Five.

After the boys were taken into custody last year, the case quickly became one of the most highly publicized and divisive in state history. Descriptions of the brutal assault of the female jogger shocked and appalled the city. But while many understand the vital importance of not making accusations without strong evidence, other sections of society have seized upon the story as an opportunity to stoke racial prejudice. The reactionary, right-wing New York Post described what happened in Central Park that night as “packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roaming the streets getting kicks from ultra-violence.” A month later, real estate mogul Donald Trump took out several full-page ads in multiple newspapers, calling for the accused teenagers to receive the death penalty.

But as well as this backlash, there has been an outpouring of support for the five boys - mainly from activist groups and students, who recognize the injustice of interrogating children without an attorney or guardian present.

It’s these taped confessions that Elizabeth Lederer is listening to now. Each of the five boys made statements about what happened that night. But as Elizabeth plays them back, she realizes that they are riddled with inconsistencies. The boys all make different claims about what time the sexual assault occurred and where it took place. Elizabeth knows that without a consistent narrative of what really happened, she will struggle to convince a jury that all five defendants are guilty.

Elizabeth points this out to her colleague Linda Fairstein, the head of the sex crimes unit here at the DA’s office. But Linda doesn’t seem too worried. She has been the driving force behind the allegations against the five teenagers, having instructed the NYPD to round up any young Black male seen in or around the park on the night of April 19th, 1989. She was determined to make an example out of the defendants, and she isn’t going to let imperfect confessions stand in her way. She tells Elizabeth to come up with a solution - whatever the cost.

Elizabeth thinks carefully. One possible solution is breaking the trial up and prosecuting each boy individually. That way, their recorded confessions cannot contradict those of their fellow defendants. But Elizabeth dismisses this approach. She wants to prosecute the boys as a group, so they appear like an intimidating gang - a “wolfpack,” as they’ve been referred to in the press. If each boy stands alone in the dock, they will look like what they are: frightened children.

Then Elizabeth figures it out. They will break the trial not into five, but into twoproceedings.Judicious clipping of the recorded confessions can minimize the risk of discrepancy. If the judge allows it - Elizabeth is pretty confident that he will - three of the boys will appear in the first hearing, and the remaining two will stand trial at a later date.

As she expected, Elizabeth’s request is approved by the court, and on June 25th, the first three defendants - Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Yusuf Salaam - arrive at the courthouse with their families. Elizabeth is pleased to note that Judge Thomas Galligan is presiding over the trial. Galligan is known for alwayssiding with the state; he’s sent so many defendants to Rikers Island over the years, the prison inmates there refer to it as Galligan’sIsland. But the trial does not begin as smoothly as Elizabeth had hoped.

Antron, Raymond, and Yusuf’s attorneys all make impassioned arguments for their clients' innocence, reminding the jury of the racial bias at the heart of the case. The boys were arrested following reports of antisocial behavior in Central Park. When the white female jogger was found to have been sexually assaulted, every young Black or Hispanic male who had been in the park that night automaticallybecame a suspect - even though the victim has never described her assailant, and the DNA from the crime scene does not match any of the accused. On the basis of flimsy circumstantial evidence alone, the prosecution cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that these boys committed the terrible crime. Additionally, the so-called confessions were all obtained after promising the boys that they would be allowed to go home after hours of brutal interrogation; such coerced confessions should not be admissible.

Elizabeth shifts uncomfortably in her seat as she listens to the defense. But fortunately for the prosecution, Elizabeth still has a trump card to play. Before the trial is over, she will call a key witness to the stand, the victim whose testimony will be sure to influence the jury’s decision: the female jogger, Trisha Meili.

Act Three: The Conviction

It’s July 1990, a few weeks after the trial against the Central Park Five began.

15-year-old Antron McCray sits in the courthouse alongside two of his co-defendants, Raymond Santana and Yusuf Salaam. For the first time in over a year, Antron is starting to feel optimistic about their chance of being found innocent. Their lawyers have shown the jury that the DNA from the crime scene doesn’t match any of the defendants', and their clothes don’t contain any trace of the victim’s blood. Antron has spent the last year in juvenile detention. Now, finally, he is allowing himself a glimmer of hope.

But then the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, stands to speak. Beneath her curly perm, the attorney’s eyes are determined. She calls her next witness to the stand: the female jogger who was attacked that night, Trisha Meili. All eyes turn to the back of the courtroom as the door opens and the young woman walks in. Trisha’s injuries were so severe, she can hardly walk. So with uncertain and faltering steps, she moves toward the witness box. By the time she arrives at the stand, a shocked and saddened silence has descended over the courtroom.

Elizabeth begins by asking Trisha questions about the extent of her injuries. Trisha describes how she lost eighty percent of the blood in her body following the attack, and how she had to teach herself how to walk and talk again after she emerged from the coma. Antron’s eyes fill with tears. Hearing Trisha speak, he is reminded of the severity of the crime that he is being accused of - a crime he would nevercommit.

Finally, Elizabeth asks Trisha whether she remembers anything about who assaulted her. Antron’s heart pounds. This could be the crucial moment, the evidence the jury needs to disprove the boys’ involvement in the crime. But Trisha responds: “No.” Her head injuries were so extreme, she lost all recollection of the attack and cannot conclusively say who assaulted her.

After Trisha leaves the stand, Elizabeth launches into a fiery closing statement, painting an explicit picture of Trisha’s sexual assault at the hands of the boys she calls “monsters.” By the time she’s finished speaking, Antron and the others know they’ll need a miracle to be found innocent. And sure enough, all three defendants are announced guilty.

A few months later, at the trial of Kevin Anderson and Korey Wise, the judgment is the same. The boys are sentenced to five and ten years in juvenile prison. Korey, the only one of the accused over sixteen, is sentenced to ten to fifteen years in Rikers Island. Antron, Raymond, Kevin, and Yusuf all serve their minimum sentences. Long after the others’ release, Korey remains behind bars.

But in 2002, he will meet a fellow inmate named Matias Torres, who after hearing Korey’s story, will come forward and confess to the rape of Trisha Meili. A DNA test will prove that Torres’ confession is true. And the Central Park Five will be exonerated and later paid a settlement of $41 million dollars. In 2012, Korey Wise will say of their wrongful conviction: “You can forgive but you won't forget. You won't forget what you lost. No money could bring that time back.” Korey will go on to donate over $190,000 of his settlement to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that works to overturn wrongful convictions. He made the gift in hopes that nobody else has to endure the same injustice suffered by the Central Park Five, following their arrest on April 19th, 1989. 


Next on History Daily. April 20th, 1862. French biologist Louis Pasteur invents a way to kill potentially harmful bacteria and names it after himself: pasteurization.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.