Sixth youth acquitted in Central Park jogger case

A forgotten co-defendant of the Central Park Five, who, like them, was charged with raping a jogger in a case that rocked New York City and the nation, is expected to be sentenced Monday. will end.

The trial of the five—teenagers of color who were innocent of the 1989 sexual assault of a white woman but were convicted by police based on false confessions—continues to shape racist attitudes in the criminal justice system. Yes, media and society writes big. But the story of the sixth man – Steven Lopez – had already been neglected.

Mr. Lopez, who was arrested when he was 15, struck a deal with prosecutors just before his trial two years later to avoid a more serious rape charge, instead of Pleaded guilty to robbing a male jogger.

Like his colleagues, he went to prison. In total, the group served for nearly 45 years. Shortly after the real assailant was identified in the 2002 Central Park rap, authorities dropped the rape convictions against all five men. He won a $41 million settlement from New York City and became the subject of movies, books and television shows.

But Mr. Lopez, now 48, received no settlement money or media attention, and his story is little known.

His robbery conviction is expected to be thrown out in a Manhattan court on Monday. The pardon would be the first under Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, who pledged to strengthen the work of the office’s wrongful convictions unit during his two years on the campaign trail.

A lawyer for Mr. Lopez declined to comment ahead of the hearing. It is unclear whether Mr. Lopez has been in contact with the men now sometimes referred to as the Exonerated Five: Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yousef Salam.

“We talk about the Central Park Five, the Accronated Five, but there were six people in that indictment,” Mr. Bragg said. “And the other five who were indicted had their convictions expunged. And now it’s time for Mr. Lopez to be vacated.”

Mr. Lopez was 15 when he was arrested and charged with raping Jogger, 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meli. Mr. Lopez also faces charges related to the robbery of a male jogger in the park on the same night, April 19, 1989.

According to a review of his case by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit, Mr. Lopez was arrested after a series of attacks began in Central Park, including a male jogger who was knocked to the ground. was thrown and beaten.

The police kept the teenagers in a cordon for hours and hours and pressed them for details of what happened in the park. The youths, aged between 14 and 16, said they were forced to blame each other for the crime.

Mr. Lopez remained in a holding cell for about 20 hours before he was questioned. Her parents, who were not native English speakers, were present, but no interpreter was provided. After about two and a half hours of questioning, a detective wrote a statement that was signed by Mr. Lopez and his father.

The statement placed Mr. Lopez at the scene of the attack on the male jogger. But despite aggressive questioning, Mr Lopez refused to say he was involved in the attack on Ms Meli.

While a number of other teenagers questioned under similar duress said Mr Lopez had committed crimes against both male and female joggers, no forensic evidence was found of his assault on the male jogger. . However, forensic investigators identified hair found on Mr. Lopez’s clothing as possibly belonging to a female jogger. (Later, it was determined that the original probe’s analysis of hair strands was unreliable.)

Ms Meli was badly beaten and left for dead. Details of the crime shocked New York City and fueled racial tensions. Mr. Lopez and five other boys were charged with rape. (Ms. Meli remained anonymous for more than a decade after the attack before identifying herself. He objected to the settlement and believes he was assaulted by more than one person..)

The teenagers arrested that night, all of whom were black or Hispanic, were treated as symptoms of a city in crime-ridden chaos. He was condemned by police, prosecutors, the media and a prominent real estate developer, Donald J. Trump, who took out full-page ads in the city’s newspapers calling for him to face the death penalty. They were often referred to as “beasts” or “wolf packs” as if they were not human.

His trial came a year before the brutal beating of Rodney King, and many Americans at the time were unaware of police misconduct and the coercive tactics that could lead to false confessions.

It was decided that six youths would be tried in three separate proceedings for rape. Mr. McCray, Mr. Salam and Mr. Santana were sentenced on August 18, 1990. Mr. Richardson and Mr. Wise were sentenced on December 11, 1990.

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

In February 2002, DNA evidence indicated that an uncharged suspect, Matias Reyes, had attacked Jogger. Mr. Reyes, who was serving time for a separate rape and murder, pleaded guilty.

That year, Manhattan’s district attorney at the time, Robert M. Morgenthau, moved to abolish rape convictions over the objections of police leadership. In the trial that followed the acquittal of the Central Park Five, it was revealed that many of the people who were willing to testify against Mr. Lopez recanted their previous statements about his guilt. . One said he named Mr. Lopez only after police detectives told him to.

In 2014, the Central Park Five received $41 million from New York City. Once upon a time, five young men represented to many a city that was on the verge of spiraling out of control. But their story is emblematic of the overreach of the justice system, the misunderstanding of the media and the deep-seated racism of American society toward black and brown youth.

Until Monday, Mr. Lopez was the forgotten element in their story. He was not included in the 2012 documentary film Ken Burns made about the case, and none of the actors appeared in Ava DuVernay’s 2019 television drama about the case. “When they see us.”

Mr. Lopez’s story was ignored, in part because he confessed to the crime. (Another defendant, Michael Briscoe, pleaded guilty to assaulting a third jogger; his conviction is upheld.) He served more than three years of his sentence and did not appeal his conviction.

Instead, nearly 20 years after his co-defendants were acquitted, Mr. Lopez quietly reintroduced himself to the Manhattan district attorney’s office in February 2021, asking that his conviction be reconsidered. The following month, the office agreed and began reviewing the case.

On the trail, Mr. Bragg, who often talks about the Exonerated Five’s experience, made the revamped unit a centerpiece of his campaign, and after taking office he recruited Terri S. Rosenblatt, who Known in New York legal circles for. Work on and lead criminal defense and civil rights cases.

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

“We talk a lot about mistrial convictions, but there can be guilty pleas that are wrong,” he said. “And now our understanding of people who make false confessions translates to people who sometimes falsely confess in court to a crime they didn’t commit.”

Mr. Bragg, who became the first black Manhattan district attorney in January, was a 15-year-old boy living in Harlem when the Central Park case first made headlines. He recounted the youth’s experiences simply, saying that they had played basketball and boarded the bus past the same park where their arrests took place.

Mr. Bragg was a friend of Ken Thompson, the former Black Brooklyn district attorney who, before his death in 2016, became known for his work with a unit that reinvestigated questionable convictions.

Mr. Bragg said such work was “the cornerstone of the administration of justice.” And he stressed that in times of public concern about safety — as it was in 1989 and as it is again today — pardons like Mr. Lopez’s help restore confidence in the workings of the legal system. can

“I am truly humbled to be in a position to replicate this work,” he said.