In 1989, a group of 30 teenage boys were hanging out at Central Park in New York City. Some of the boys were seen to have been harassing the homeless and causing a commotion. That same night, a 28-year-old white woman, named Trisha Meili went for a jog in the park and was later found beaten and raped in that park. As the woman was in a coma for 12 days, the case of the Central Park jogger would be the top story, and five black and brown teenage boys between the ages of 14 to 16 would be imprisoned and falsely accused of all charges. These boys would soon be known as the Central Park Five.
When police cars began flooding the park, the kids began running and going in all directions, guilty or not. They knew that whoever was caught would be guilty of whatever was happening. Most of those 30 kids had no idea what was going on. Five boys were eventually interrogated by the police. The police manipulated and dragged words out of their mouths for hours, making them twist their words into a false confession. The kids had no idea what was really going on, only that the cops wanted a story, and that they were gonna get it however they could—through yelling, threatening and false promises. Hours later when the cops could put together an understandable story, four boys had documented confessions.
For the cops it was simple. They had to pin the story on these kids because there was a lot of pressure on them from the public and their boss’s expectations of finding the criminals fast, whether they commited the crime or not. Also, the public was now against the boys because their faces were seen as people who could easily be guilty of these crimes. For the five boys, it was over. After two trials, the five boys were found guilty on charges of assult, rape, attempted murder, and robbery. They were sentenced six to 13 or more years in prison. Everyone seemed to be convinced this was justice and at this time, race relations in New York were strained. Some people even argued that these boys deserved the death penalty.
In December of 2002, after most of the boys served 7 years in prison, Kevin Richarson, Raymond Santana Jr., Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise were dropped of all charges when the actual perpetrator, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crimes. When something that could have easily proved the other five boys innocent was found, DNA confirmed the truth.
In recent years, the story of the Central Park Five has been retold in documentaries and TV shows like, “When They See Us.” These portrayals show us the corrupt imprisonment system we have in America and how it negatively affects black and brown individuals. The boys, now men in their 40s, settled for millions of dollars for the awful mistake that had taken most of their lives. When released, they said that no amount of money would give them back all that they have lost, and that because of the color of their skin people thought the worst of them.
Wrongful imprisonment still happens to this day as police still judge a person they see fit for a crime. According to The Innocence Project, an organization that works to help the wrongfully accused, 41 out of 367 people pled guilty to crimes that they did not commit. What the system won't admit is that they are not always correct and that they put innocent people in jail sometimes. Cases like these are usually the ones that aren't completely checked out because of assumptions made with barely any proof. Similarly to the Central Park Five, the real perpetrator will be found out years later, or sometimes even after the person is executed, that they are found to be falsely accused of all charges.
Glenda Lara, a 25-year-old member of the Dorchester community says, “If somebody else paid for their crime, on top of their sentence for that, they deserve extra years to make up for it.” She believed that there should be more serious consequences for the actual criminal. She also believes, “If there’s the slightest doubt [about someone’s guilt] then they shouldn’t make a sudden decision. Wrongfully accusing teens is more common than people think.” It's because teenagers don't think it will happen to them or because it's just easier to target a young person of color.
According to The New York Times, “the U.S asserts that in this century 343 people were wrongfully convicted of offenses punishable by death, and that 25 were actually executed.” Police tend to target people of color. Particularly, in Boston we see this when we walk past a crime scene or get questioned by police. In an interview with attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School on racial bias in Boston, they said, “Black youth have been accustomed to-and therefore expect-to be treated with suspicion by police, regardless of if they have committed the crime.”
The color of our skin can have a lot of influence on police officers because they see us and connect us to an entire biased story. Jared Moore, a history teacher at Match Middle says, “Race and situation definitely play a role, as does legal work”. He maintains that wrongful imprisonment is not always at fault of just one person or a group of people but, “so many people have made serious mistakes that it's hard to blame a person or even one group of people. Police need to do better, so do our lawyers, so do our politicians—so we can move toward a more just society.” Based on this, he believes it's more about the way society and the system plays together, and that we all need to come together in order for this to stop happening.
Eliminating racial profiling would significantly help aid in the process. The Innocence Project helps accused people who claim they are innocent find evidence and proof when they feel they have not had a fair or equal trial. According to one of the Innocence Project’s articles on what wrongful execution teaches about race, “Thousands of individuals of every race and ethnicity have requested our assistance. Yet, the vast majority of our clients are minorities. In fact, people of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system.” Because of the color of their skin, black and brown individuals are subjected to racial profiling and a lot of young people have to face this every day.
People still hold prejudice and are quick to assume. I think that to change wrongful imprisonment, we need to make many changes in society. There is no one solution.