Donald Trump chose to insert himself in one of the most historic cases of coerced confessions, anti-Blackness, and police brutality. Thirty-four years later, he finds himself at the center of another: the first indictment of a U.S. President. As the anniversary of the Central Park Five case nears, we’re reviewing the differences between how five innocent Black teens and one former President are treated in criminal convictions.
Read an overview of the Central Park Five case.
Before we analyze the differences, we have to name the intersection—how these two stories collided in the first place. When the Central Park Five were falsely accused, their names were released to the public before they were arraigned or indicted. The media jumped in, creating a wave of negative press and hateful attacks against the children and their families.
Donald Trump, then a real estate developer, decided to wield his influence and power and join in. He took out full-page ads in local newspapers with an open letter. “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK POLICE,” it stated. The ad claimed that “roving thousands of wild criminals” were threatening New York families and said they “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” The Central Park Five legal defense team said these ads “poisoned the minds of many people who lived in New York and who, rightfully, had a natural affinity for the victim” (Time).
• Donate to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to free those falsely incarcerated and work towards a more just criminal legal system.
• Consider how the racializing of crime in the media creates false perceptions of who’s guilty or innocent.
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Donald Trump was offered a quiet surrender with arraignment over Zoom, though he opted for a high-profile booking at the Manhattan courthouse in broad daylight (Rolling Stone). His hopes were to publicize the “injustice” he perceives he is facing and encourage outrage from his supporter base. After the arraignment, Trump flew back to Florida and held an event with his supporters Tuesday evening at his Mar-a-Lago resort (CNN).
Central Park Five
The names of the teenagers falsely accused in the Central Park case were released to the public before they were even arraigned, despite standard practices in policing keeping identities of suspects younger than 16 confidential. The media ran stories admonishing the alleged crimes they committed, including their names, photos, and addresses. Police had already taken custody of two of the five children, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, both 14, before the incident occurred for “unlawful behavior.” Antron McCray, 15; Yusef Salaam, 15; and Korey Wise, 16, were brought in for questioning the morning after.
On April 4, 2023, Trump was charged with 34 felony counts related to falsifying and fudging business records to cover up efforts to illegally influence the 2016 election (AP). Evidence included the paper trail of checks Trump sent to his lawyer and problem-solver to reimburse him for his role in paying off a porn actor who said she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump years earlier. Trump did not have to post bail. In 2020, efforts to reform unjust cash bail practices paid off, and now, in the state of New York, there is no cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies (NYTimes).
Central Park Five
On May 10, 1989, the Central Park Five and Steven Lopez, 15, were charged with attempted murder and other charges. (The charges against Lopez were dropped when he pled guilty to another crime). The bail for each individual was set at $25,000. McCray and Santana were sent to juvenile detention. Wise, who was 16 at the time of the indictment, was sent to an adult jail in Rikers.
This indictment was prompted by a series of videotaped confessions from four of the defendants that were captured after hours of unsupervised and unrecorded interrogation. But each of them later expressed how the police lied or coerced them to state their involvement. Each defendant retracted his statement before the indictment. Years later, Salaam said: “I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room. They would come and look at me and say: ‘You realize you’re next’. The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out” (The Guardian).
Each count of falsifying business records, a felony, is punishable by up to four years in prison — though it’s not clear if a judge would impose any prison time if Trump is convicted. The court date is set for December 4 (AP).
Central Park Five
Salaam, McCray, and Santana were found guilty of rape, assault, robbery, and riot and sentenced to 5–10 years each in a youth correctional facility, the maximum time allowed for juveniles. Richardson was found guilty of attempted murder, rape, assault, and robbery and was also sentenced to 5–10 years in a juvenile facility. Wise was found guilty of sexual abuse, assault, and riot and sentenced to 5-15 years in an adult prison (History). During his time incarcerated, he encountered so much personal violence that he asked to stay in isolation (Innocence Project). Four of the five attempted to appeal, but their convictions were maintained. Their convictions were exonerated after Matias Reyes, a convicted serial rapist and murderer, confessed to the rape and assault with his DNA matching forensic evidence found at the scene (History).
This year, Salaam announced in February that he was running for city council for central Harlem. On the day of Trump’s arraignment, he shared a full-page ad he created in the same spirit as Trump’s decades ago. “After several decades and an unfortunate and disastrous presidency, we all know who exactly Donald J. Trump is — a man who seeks to deny justice and fairness for others while claiming only innocence for himself […] I hope that you exercise your civil liberties to the fullest, and that you get what the Exonerated 5 did not get — a presumption of innocence, and a fair trial.”
• Former President Donald Trump was indicted on multiple felony counts related to illegally influencing the 2016 election.
• Donald Trump was responsible for stoking hate against and villainizing the Central Park Five through the one-page ad he took out during the investigation.
• When analyzing the differences between the Central Park Five indictment and Donald Trump’s, we see how differently people from different positions of power are treated by our criminal legal system.