Member Of 'Central Park Five' Talks Justice

The DOC NYC film festival wraps up with The Central Park Five. The film recounts the notorious rape case of the Central Park jogger and the five young men wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for her rape. Host Michel Martin speaks with Raymond Santana, one of the convicted men. Advisory: This conversation may not be comfortable for all listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We want to go back to a story that fascinated and appalled New Yorkers and many people around the country more than 20 years ago, and here is where it's probably a good idea to tell you that this conversation is going to have some sensitive material in it that might not be appropriate for everybody.

Here is a clip of some news footage about the case from when it all started in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: In New York City this morning, a jogger is fighting for her life after a brutal attack in Central Park.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Viciously battered and unconscious, wearing only a jogging bra, her hands tied over her mouth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The suspects are 14 and 15-year-olds who blazed a nighttime trail of terror.

MARTIN: Five black and Latino teenagers, later called the Central Park Five, were charged with raping the young white woman and beating her so badly, she nearly died. There was no credible DNA or eyewitness evidence tying them to the crime. There were numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their statements about virtually every important aspect of the crime and those statements were all delivered after hours of interrogations without their parents or lawyers present. Despite all that, they were all convicted and served their entire sentences before the real assailant stepped forward to admit to the crime.

Now a new documentary featured at the DOC New York City Film Festival tells the painful story. The film was written and produced by the well-known documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, along with his daughter Sarah, who's also written a book about the case.

And joining us now is one of the young men featured in the documentary, Raymond Santana, one of the Central Park Five, and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

RAYMOND SANTANA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Is it hard for you to listen to that opening bit of tape that we played about the news coverage?

SANTANA: Sometimes. Sometimes it opens up old wounds and you have to relive the whole ordeal. It's also part of the healing process for me and I come to terms with it, so...

MARTIN: Do you think you have?

SANTANA: Yes. Because back in about - maybe about - before I went back to prison for my drug case, you know, I was at a point that I was - I felt I'd run out of options and I didn't know what to do and that was the start of me embracing the label of the Central Park Five.

In the beginning it was just like a hopeless feeling and so it became more of not caring anymore because I felt that this label was going to follow us to the grave and there was nothing that we can do about it. And then as time went on, you know, you start to heal. You know, the Central Park Five, the label itself - it started to become something more positive, you know, because now we started giving back.

MARTIN: Let's go back for a minute. You know, the film talks about the atmosphere in the city at the time all these events took place back in 1989. It talks about the sense among, you know, some people that the city was out of control. I mean, that's when, you know, crack started coming in. There were a lot of these, like crazy behavior, kids kind of marauding through the park, beating people up for no reason, that kind of thing.

I remember, you were 14 when all this happened. Did you feel that way yourself at the time as a kid growing up in the city, that the place was out of control?

SANTANA: No. You know, for me - and at the age of 14, for me it was all about listening to music and, you know, wearing stylish clothes, you know, that whole aspect of, you know, how the city - you know, with the crack wars and the crime rate - that didn't affect me because I was 14 years old. So a lot of that stuff went over my head.

MARTIN: You and your friends were in the park the night that the assault on the jogger took place. I mean you were there. You were hanging out and you were - what's the right word for what you all were doing?

SANTANA: Being followers. Following the crowd, because everybody didn't know each other. You know, I didn't know Yusef, Corey and Kevin and Antron back then, you know, so we had mutual friends within the group, you know, that I came with. I didn't know them.

MARTIN: People were causing some ruckus. Right?

SANTANA: Yes. People were.

MARTIN: I mean there were...

SANTANA: Not the five of us, but people were. You know, some of the older guys. And...

MARTIN: You saw somebody being assaulted, for example. A man being...

SANTANA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...beaten up and at some point you were all rounded up.

SANTANA: Yes.

MARTIN: A bunch of you were rounded up. Right. Initially you didn't think it was that big of a deal or did you?

SANTANA: No. You know, because at first they just - you know, they told some of the parents and they also told us that we would just receive like a DAT ticket and a desk appearance ticket at family court and that would be it.

MARTIN: And, at some point you did realize that it was serious. At some point, what happened? The young woman had been found and that's when the police thought that they were investigating a murder. Is that right?

SANTANA: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did you figure that out?

SANTANA: I didn't figure that out until the interrogation started.

MARTIN: I'm going to play a clip from the documentary now, and in the clip you and the other men actually read aloud the police statements that you wrote all those years ago. And I'm just going to play it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: She had on gray shorts with black biking pants and a white tank top.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I observed the male, black Kevin, with scratch on face, was struggling with a female.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The tall, thin black guy hit her in the ribs with a pipe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I moved back and everybody started feeling on her.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Antron came and started ripping her clothes off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The Puerto Rican kid with a black hoodie jumped on her.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I tried to grab her. I got scratched on my face.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Antron pulled her pants off and she was screaming.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN#2: Antron had sex with her.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Then Kevin got on her.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: That's when she was yelling stop and help. I was the one that didn't rape her.

MARTIN: This is not from the videotaped interrogations, right? You're re-creating...

SANTANA: Well, some of those statements were.

MARTIN: Right.

SANTANA: Like some of those - the stuff that the police wrote...

MARTIN: Right.

SANTANA: And so it was, I guess that's just an analogy in the movie, you know, saying like, you know, you read these statements in your like, wow, you know, like they got a kid to commit into saying these words, you know, which were absolutely false.

MARTIN: So the police wrote these statements out for you and you read them. Is that it?

SANTANA: Yeah. In my statement it starts off with approximately so and so hundred hours, you know, and that tells you right there that a kid didn't write this. Police wrote it.

MARTIN: Why did you and the others confess when you knew you didn't do it?

SANTANA: Yeah. First, we were 14, 15, 16-year-old kids who never been involved with the law, never been arrested, never had anything, any encounters with the police. And so that was number one, because we was naive. And then number two, these was the elite of the police force. This was the Homicide North Detective Squad, which are considered the best. You know, you throw in no food, no drink, no water, you know, no lawyer presence, you know, at times no parent, and then, you know, you sprinkle that in with lots of pressure. And so now when you have a 14-year-old kid, it's easy to manipulate him, especially if you entice him and tell him that he's going to be able to go home if he cooperate.

MARTIN: What do they tell you that made you - because at this point they had separated you all. What did they tell you that made you say it?

SANTANA: Each of our confessions last from 15 to 30 hours. And so, you know, first...

MARTIN: You mean interrogations, that each of you was actually questioned for anywhere from 15 hours to 30 hours.

SANTANA: Fifteen to 30 hours.

MARTIN: Right.

SANTANA: So that tells you that there was a lot of, you know, fight. And so what happens in interrogation is that first you have to wear the person down. And once you have a person broken down to the point that they just want to get out of a room, then you can pretty much get them to say anything, and in my instance, you know, it was Detective Hartigan who sat in the back and let these police officers blow smoke in my face and yell at me and lunged towards me like they were going to hurt me, and at that moment he saved me. He stepped in and he stopped them from committing any type of harm towards me, and I was grateful. And that's where deception starts to come in. He kicks everybody out the room and he starts to talk to me. And he says look, you know, I know that you didn't do it. You're a good kid but, you know, Kevin Richardson, we know he did it, but we just need some help. And this is where the whole false story starts to take place.

MARTIN: Hmm. The film makes the point that there were all kinds of clues at the time that these stories were made up.

SANTANA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean the prosecutor's subsequent report says that there were just major differences among all your stories. The timeline didn't make sense. And one of the things I think people might be interested to know is DNA did exist at the time.

SANTANA: That's right.

MARTIN: And none of your DNA was found on her. So even to the point where you were actually convicted, did you think that you were going to go home?

SANTANA: You know, initially we did because we knew that we didn't do the crime. So, you know, once, you know, and it wasn't just blood samples, you know, they took handprints, they took fingerprints, they took footprints, they took our clothes, you know, they took blood samples, so they did everything they could to try to find some scientific evidence to link us. And, you know, you figure all right, once this stuff comes back and it doesn't match, then there's the red flag. Something should go off and say wait a minute, you know, we got something wrong here, and in this instance, in this situation that didn't happen.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting is that you actually had some chance to get out of prison before you actually did. You came up for parole and they wouldn't let you out. And one of the reasons you wouldn't - they wouldn't let you out is that you refused to say that you participated in the attack.

SANTANA: That's true.

MARTIN: And your lack of remorse is one of the reasons that you were turned down. Why do you think that is, that, you know, after participating in this confession, which was false, and which was coerced, that subsequently you wouldn't save yourself, if you want to call it that? Why do you think that is?

SANTANA: Once you know that you have been tricked and you know that everything that the police told you was false, and that was you going home, then, you know, it's like OK, since now since I'm not going home, you know, I'm going back on what I said. Like, I know it's false, I didn't, we didn't commit this crime. And plus, DNA evidence proves that we didn't do it. And so you have to stick to your story now. You know, at the end of the day these are people who not only gave us a five to 10 year sentence, but in turn it became sort of like a death sentence. This was the five of us versus this big criminal justice system.

MARTIN: The real perpetrator, who was a person who was a serial rapist, who had committed a similar crime in the park just days before...

SANTANA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...eventually did tell somebody in prison. Was it you? I forget. I...

SANTANA: It was Korey Wise.

MARTIN: It was Korey Wise. He told somebody in prison and eventually the story kind of made its way through the system.

SANTANA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you were - your sentences were vacated.

SANTANA: Exonerated.

MARTIN: You were exonerated.

SANTANA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Hold on. I'm going to play a clip...

SANTANA: OK.

MARTIN: ...from the day that the judge dismissed your convictions. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I have applications that are on behalf of all the defendants, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray to follow the indictments against each one of them in their entirety to be dismissed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Motion is granted. I want everyone have a very...

RAYMOND SANTANA: At the time I was in prison...

MARTIN: Yeah.

SANTANA: ...and in prison everybody stood around and they was waiting. Most of the inmates, because it was in the paper so they all read up on it and that was the hot news, and everybody waited. And I called my dad at maybe about one o'clock and he told me, you know, you have been exonerated. I was shocked. You know, I was like wow, you know, this is my first thought, you know, that hopefully I could put my life back together. But I was still in prison and so, you know, they, my lawyers issued a motion so that I can be released because I was sentenced as a predicate felon due to the Central Park jogging case.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new documentary that takes a deep look at the Central Park jogger case. That was the case out of New York more than 20 years ago where five young black and Latino teenagers were convicted of a vicious assault on a young white jogger. It turns out they were all innocent, but they had served their full sentences before they were exonerated.

We're talking with one of the five, Raymond Santana. He was featured in the documentary. You know, it's tempting to want to believe that this was like a movie where you're all exonerated and everybody goes home and it's great, you know, and everything is great. But it wasn't.

SANTANA: We moved forward with a civil suit against the city of New York and now the civil suit is going into its tenth year. And currently, we're in the deposition stages, which means that we still have some ways to go. And what happened is that because the city likes to use these stall tactics and they have been implementing these tactics for the past nine years now. And so it's currently at a standstill.

MARTIN: And you also alluded to this earlier in our conversation, so I just want to explain what it is you were talking about. You actually went back to, to prison...

SANTANA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...on a drug charge.

SANTANA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You subsequently had your sentence reduced because you were - had been sentenced as a repeat offender instead of as a first-time offender because your previous sentence should not have factored in at all, right?

SANTANA: That's correct.

MARTIN: So you did get out. I don't want to put words in your mouth. Some people will say that look at that and they say well, that's evidence that you're not a good citizen. You're a bad actor.

SANTANA: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And I just wanted to ask how you wanted to just talk about that.

SANTANA: When I was released, I was released in 1995, and I couldn't get a job. I didn't know how to function in society because there was no transitional programs that take me from prison to the streets. And so this is what I say when I tell people that we received a five to 10 sentence, but in actuality it was a death sentence because, not only were we not supposed to make it in prison, but we weren't supposed to make it in society also. You know, people had written us off. Nobody wanted to help us. There were numerous articles written on us. First of all, they gave us all these labels. We were called urban terrorists, animals or wolf pack. They said that the elders of the Central Park Five should have been taken to Central Park and hung. And they used a lot of language that was similar to Jim Crow. With all that, where is my legit opportunity and my legit shot to become productive? I fell apart, and that's what led me to recidivism.

MARTIN: Mm. How are you doing now?

SANTANA: Oh, now I'm great, you know.

MARTIN: What do you think made the difference?

SANTANA: Well, you know, first off when, we got fully exonerated, you know, I didn't have that criminal justice system still grabbing my ankles, you know, holding me down, so that was number one. And then number two was that finally, we was able to take this boulder of this whole case off of our shoulders and that relieved a lot of pressure. And number three was also that now the Central Park Five went from being a negative label to something more positive. You know, it stands for justice, it stands for standing tall, it stands for not giving up, determination. You know, we talked to the kids now and, you know, we partner with the Innocence Project, where we go to high schools and we go to colleges, and if a kid sees me in the street we can stop and talk, that's part of the Central Park Five invested in our kids because back then nobody wanted to invest in us.

MARTIN: Do you ever think about leaving the city? Going?

SANTANA: No.

MARTIN: Really? How come?

SANTANA: No...

MARTIN: OK.

SANTANA: Because, you know, I earned my spot as a New Yorker, you know, it's only right that I stay.

MARTIN: Do you ever go back to Central Park?

SANTANA: I don't really walk in there. I never have taken my daughter to a park and let her play in the playground in Central Park. I don't even let her see it because I know she's going to want to go in there. And I think for me, like that's that final piece, you know, and I think that I can't really do that until this whole case is closed.

MARTIN: Hmm. Can you walk past the police now without - I mean I'm just wondering what happens when you see police officers.

SANTANA: I let them know who I am. Yusef Salaam had an incident where he got pulled over by the police and when they found out who he was they even asked him could he come down and maybe talk to, you know, be involved in some of their programs. So, you know, uh-uh, we don't fear the police at all.

MARTIN: Raymond Santana was featured in the documentary called "The Central Park Five." It's being featured in documentary festivals around the country, most recently as part of the DOC New York City Festival, and he joined us from our bureau in New York City.

Raymond Santana, thank you for speaking with us.

SANTANA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The handle is @TELL ME MORENPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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