Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Presumption of guilt persists despite Central Park Five settlement

  • Print

New York City’s recently announced $40-million settlement with the five exonerated defendants in the infamous Central Park Five jogger-rape case appears to close the chapter on a painful historical episode.

But in reality, both the injustice it represents, and the way race and class determine how the accused are treated, are very much open concerns. This is true for no one more than black men like me, for whom the facts of the case and contemporary attitudes surrounding it are personal.

It was 25 years ago, during the waning days of the Ed Koch mayoral administration, that the case of the 28-year-old jogger brutally raped by an anonymous pack of "wilding" black and Latino teenagers made national headlines.

In short order, five young men were rounded up, with two confessing (we now know, only after being convinced by detectives that they must have done something in the park). It appeared on the surface to be an open-and-shut representation of the kind of sensationalized urban crime that caused white flight from cities during the 1960s.

The story contained the ingredients for media spectacle: defendants from the wrong side of the tracks accused of attacking a white woman whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even their names — Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise — surely sounded, at least to many white New Yorkers, guilty. They were like the names of the countless black and Latino criminals who populated nightly horror stories that passed as local news. The fact that they all lived in pre-gentrified Harlem seemed, to some, like incontrovertible proof of guilt.

Except that the defendants, four of whom would serve seven years in prison, while a fifth would serve 13 years, were innocent. They had been in the park that night, with many admitting later to engaging in criminal activity, but none had raped and assaulted the Central Park jogger. The stunningly detailed documentary film The Central Park Five, released in 2012, offered a brilliant anatomy of the twisted vision of justice that allowed them to be scapegoated for a crime they did not commit.

Even when prosecutors, journalists and political officials were confronted with hard evidence capable of exonerating the Central Park Five, they stubbornly resisted.

But the history isn’t the worst of it. More astonishing than this wrongheaded perspective is its contemporary prevalence. A quarter-century later, there are still some, most notably Donald Trump, who find the cash settlement more troubling than the injustice that merited it.

Trump, who in the immediate aftermath of the rape paid for a full-page ad demanding that New York bring back the death penalty, called the settlement a "disgrace" and noted that the youths who had previous run-ins with the law were no "angels."

Both his earlier call for the death penalty and his current attack of the settlement promote punishment, even for the innocent, instead of justice.

It’s a reminder that black and Latino men are presumed guilty by the American criminal-justice system and the public that holds it accountable. You can almost hear the unspoken question coming from people like Trump: If they didn’t commit this specific crime, who’s to say they did not commit others?

I grew up in New York during this era, walked its streets, played in its parks and chafed at the suspicious stares from police officers whenever groups of young black boys gathered. Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s visionary film about race and democracy in the post-civil-rights era, came out a little over two months later. I remember waiting in line, with great anticipation, to view a movie that critics feared might spark race riots in a city that simmered far and wide with racial tension.

In many ways the case of the Central Park Five is a metaphor for our contemporary justice system. Race and class shape the treatment received by the accused, especially the innocent.

The heart of the matter is that the defendants, even those who confessed, were innocent and the system didn’t care. Instead it relegated them to years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit because their backgrounds and bodies presumed guilt.

This happens to black men all too often. It’s only the epilogue, where five exonerated defendants receive a hard-earned second chance, that is an anomaly.

No amount of money will restore what those five teenagers, now approaching middle age, have lost. But we are better off living in a country where acts of restorative justice, however long delayed, sometimes cannot be denied — and where we’re moved by stories like this one not to repeat our mistakes.


— The Root


Joseph, a contributing editor at The, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a Tufts University history professor. He is also a fellow for Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute and author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter: @penieljoseph

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Winnipeg’s best friend the dragon fly takes a break at English Gardens in Assiniboine Park Wednesday- A dragon fly can eat  food equal to its own weight in 30 minutes-Standup photo- June 13, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 101130-Winnipeg Free Press Columns of light reach skyward to the stars above Sanford Mb Tuesday night. The effect is produced by streetlights refracting through ice crystals suspended in the air on humid winter nights. Stand Up.....

View More Gallery Photos


What do you think of the government's announcement that there will be no balanced provincial budget until 2018?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google