NEW YORK — More than 30 years after he was convicted, Steven Lopez, the sixth co-defendant in a 1989 frame-up trial of five youth, who became known as the Central Park Five, was exonerated July 25 in the New York State Supreme Court. He had been convicted on related robbery and assault charges.
The five others, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, were framed for the 1989 assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old Caucasian investment banker, while she was jogging in the park. Friends and family of the five organized demonstrations in their defense and their convictions were eventually overturned in 2002.
The Black and Latino teenagers were 14 to 16 years old at the time of their arrests and only “confessed” after cops made physical threats against them. They were held for 14 to 30 hours without food or sleep. Detectives led defendants to blame each other, promising they would be allowed to go home.
Some of the beleaguered youth fingered Lopez as the assailant, later disavowing this testimony. One said he only named Lopez after being given his name by a detective. “I was 15 years old and I wanted to get out of there,” he said.
The night of the rape, Lopez, who was also 15, was detained in a holding cell for 20 hours before being questioned. His parents spoke almost no English and translation was not provided. A detective wrote out a statement that Lopez and his father signed, but Lopez always claimed his innocence.
That same night, Lopez was then accused of robbing and beating John Loughlin, a teacher jogging in Central Park. But there was no physical evidence; Loughlin never identified Lopez as one of the attackers; and statements by witnesses blaming Lopez were recanted.
A month before his trial for the Meili rape, Lopez made a plea deal claiming he was “guilty” of the first-degree robbery of Loughlin in exchange for having the rape charge — carrying a much harsher sentence — dropped. Lopez was sentenced in 1991 and served almost four years in prison.
In an interview with the New York Times after Lopez’s exoneration, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana voiced their support for him. “It’s only right that he’s exonerated,” said Santana.
The Central Park Five served between 6 and 13 years in prison amid a hysterical atmosphere whipped up by capitalist politicians and the media, claiming they were involved in a rampage of some 25 youth harassing and molesting joggers and pedestrians. Democratic Mayor Edward Koch smeared them as “monsters.” All five maintained their innocence. Authorities wanted “for us to be lynched,” Salaam said later.
Their testimony “differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime,” Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau later admitted. There was no physical evidence or witnesses, the crime timeline never matched their location and Meili said she did not remember details of the attack.
In 2002, their indictments were dismissed after Matias Reyes, already serving time for another rape and murder, admitted he alone raped Meili. DNA found on Meili matched Reyes.
After more than 11 years, the Central Park Five were awarded $41 million in a 2014 lawsuit that they filed in 2003 against New York City and the cops and prosecutors who had framed them. The city denied any wrongdoing. “No amount of money could have given us our time back,” Salaam told CBS, “and that time is really what’s important.”
Lopez received no compensation for his frame-up and incarceration.