In 1989, Yusef Salaam and four other African-American and Latino teenagers were arrested for beating and raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park. They became known as the Central Park Five. Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for their execution. Then, in 2002, their convictions were vacated after the real rapist came forward and confessed to the crime and his DNA matched. By then, the Central Park Five served between seven and 13 years in jail for the assault. The city settled with them for $41 million. But as late as last week Donald Trump still claimed they were guilty. We speak with Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, who writes in The Washington Post that “Donald Trump won’t leave me alone.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If Donald Trump had his way, our next guest would have been executed over two decades ago. In 1989, Yusef Salaam and four other African-American and Latino teenagers were arrested for beating and raping a white woman who was jogging one evening in New York City’s Central Park. They became known as the Central Park Five.
AMY GOODMAN: Media coverage at the time portrayed the teens as guilty, used racially coded terms like “wolf pack” to refer to the group of boys accused in the attack. Donald Trump took out full-page ads in four city newspapers. The ad was said, “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!” The ad went on to read in part, quote, “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” end-quote. In an interview with CNN later the same year, Trump defended the ad.
DONALD TRUMP: I am strongly in favor of the death penalty. I’m also in favor of bringing back police forces that can do something instead of just turning their back because every quality lawyer that represents people that are in trouble say the first thing they do is start shouting police brutality, etc. … I’m not prejudging at all. I’m not, in this particular case. I’m saying, if they’re found guilty, if the woman died, which she hopefully will not be dying, but if the woman died, I think they should be executed. … The problem with our society is that the victim has absolutely no rights and the criminal has unbelievable rights. Unbelievable rights. And I say it has to stop. That’s why I took the ad. And I have to tell you, that ad, I have never done anything that’s been so positively received.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Yusef Salaam and the four others teenagers ended up spending between seven and 13 years in jail for the assault. Then, in 2002, the convictions in the Central Park Five case were vacated after the real rapist came forward and confessed to the crime. DNA evidence confirmed that he was the sole attacker. The story of the Central Park Five was chronicled in the 2012 film The Central Park Five, directed by famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah.
COMMISSIONER RICHARD CONDON: Last night, a woman jogger was found unconscious and partially clothed in Central Park. She was beaten and sexually assaulted.
ED KOCH: A woman jogging in Central Park. Central Park was holy. It was the crime of the century.
COMMISSIONER RICHARD CONDON: Five youths were arrested on 96th Street, all between 14 and 15 years of age.
ED KOCH: They got ’em!
SAUL KASSIN: You can only imagine the pressure to have this crime solved and solved quickly.
KEVIN RICHARDSON: First we was all together. Then they started to put us in different rooms, separately.
YUSEF SALAAM: “What did you do? Who were you with? Who did you come with?” The tone was very scary. I felt like they might take us to the back of the precinct and kill us.
KOREY WISE: You’re not going to go home until you give up a story.
RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: I told my son, “Go to the park,” that night. I feel guilty.
KEVIN RICHARDSON: I’m telling the guy, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They’re getting a little angry.
RAYMOND SANTANA: And they’re like, “You know you did it. Didn’t you?”
UNIDENTIFIED: He had been interrogated for over 24 hours. That amounts to pressure.
NATALIE BYFIELD: These young men were guilty. It was almost unquestioned.
LYNNELL HANCOCK: The police controlled the story. They created the story.
CALVIN O. BUTTS III: They seized on the fears of the people. “Wilding,” the bestial characterization of the black man.
MICHAEL WARREN: There’s no DNA match whatsoever to any of these boys.
RONALD GOLD: I was going nuts. No blood on the kids. Nobody could identify them. But if they confessed, they confessed, and that was that.
JIM DWYER: A lot of people didn’t do their jobs—reporters, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers.
UNIDENTIFIED: This was institutional protectionism.
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: We falsely convicted them, and we walked away from our crime.
UNIDENTIFIED: This is the ultimate siren that says none of us is safe.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer to The Central Park Five documentary. In 2014, the City of New York agreed to pay $41 million to the five men wrongfully convicted.
As for Donald Trump, he’s never apologized. In fact, he still claims they were guilty. In a statement to CNN last week, Donald Trump said, quote, “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same,” he said.
Well, we are going now to Atlanta to speak with Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five. His recent piece for The Washington Post is headlined “I’m one of the Central Park Five. Donald Trump won’t leave me alone.”
Yusef, thanks so much for joining us on Democracy Now! Donald Trump, as early as last Thursday, continues to say that you are guilty. What do you say to him?
YUSEF SALAAM: You know, first, thanks for having me on your show.
Donald Trump has the absolute, ultimate ability to fact-check everything about this case. I mean, in the trailer, one of the things that’s really surprising is that you have one of the jurors saying, you know, he was going crazy, there was no evidence, no blood on the guys, but they confessed, and so that was that, you know. But when you look at the nature of the confessions, when you look at the nature of what happened to get the confessions, how these confessions didn’t match anything that the other guys were saying, you know, and then all of a sudden, 13 years later, the truth comes out, and here you have a guy who talks about what happened at the crime scene, talks about when he struck the woman over the head with a tree branch, talks about dragging her into the woods—and key evidence that no one else had mentioned is that she was tied up with here own jogging outfit—you know, Donald Trump has the ability to look at all of this stuff and to put the truth out there.
But I think that it’s more attractive to him to be divisive, to be negative. He’s calling it a positive thing that he did back in 1989. I mean, we’re talking about—this crime happened April 19, 1989. On May 1st, Donald Trump had already taken out the ads. It was being ran in New York City’s newspapers, calling for the death penalty to be reinstated. What was happening was that we were given a social death. We were being tried in the media, and they were getting ready to lynch us, in public and through the court system. You know, if I had a show, I would tell Donald Trump he was fired. All of the things that he’s exhibiting today is very, very disturbing. Nobody who is seeking presidency should even have any kind of shady, dark past like Donald Trump. He’s definitely not the man for these United States of America.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you refer, as we have, to the—those full-page ads that he took out back then. You were one of the few accused who actually was able to get out on bail shortly after the arrests. What was your reaction? And what was the reaction in the city? Because I remember it well, because I covered the trial of several of you during that time. What was the reaction in the city and the climate, especially fueled by Trump’s ads?
YUSEF SALAAM: You know, it was very negative. If you look at the campaigns that Donald Trump has gone around the country to, you know, bolster up the people to follow him, then you have on one side people opposing this and campaigning against Donald Trump, campaigns—Donald Trump’s followers have physically assaulted some of these individuals who have been there peacefully protesting Donald Trump’s presidency. In 1989, when I was bailed out, we were the pariahs. It was such a negative energy, such a negative place. I mean, we could not turn anywhere, without the exception of our mothers’ or our parents’ arms, and find safety. It was one of the most dangerous places to be. And when I look back at that time, I mean, we couldn’t do anything other than put one foot in front of the other and continue to live out whatever this life was that we were being given, you know. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Yusef, how many years did you serve?
YUSEF SALAAM: I served seven years in prison, about—well, about seven years in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Raymond Santana, when he was on Democracy Now!, another of the Central Park Five. This was in 2012 we spoke to him.
RAYMOND SANTANA: I served almost seven years. And so, what happened was that, you know, I tried to get my life back together and put one foot in front of the other, but I didn’t—you know, I didn’t realize the social death that we were given as a sentence. You know, this wasn’t a five to 15 or five to 10; this was a life sentence, a death sentence, in a sense, because, you know, when I came home, I couldn’t get employment. You know, I tried out—filled out numerous applications. And, you know, I had to register as a sex offender. You know, my whole neighborhood looked at me, you know, kind of strange. You know, you get the “Hi, how are you doing?” but, you know, you always have that bullseye on the back, you know, that says, someway, somehow, I’m Raymond Santana from the Central Park jogger case.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to play a comment from a juror who served on the 1990 jury that convicted Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, as well as you, Yusef Salaam, in the case. We interviewed Harold Brueland in 2002 after new evidence emerged that prompted him and many others to question if justice was served. This was his response.
HAROLD BRUELAND: Let’s put it this way. I don’t have a clear notion of what happened. I certainly know that you cannot convict on what you—on uncertainties. You must let someone go, if you have reasonable doubt. I have very much reasonable doubt now.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was one of the Central Park Five jurors, very interesting. And, Yusef, we’ve spoken about this on a panel, aside from covering this case. The man who ultimately confessed, Matias Reyes, in prison, and his DNA matched—the DNA never matched any of you, any of the Central Park Five—he ultimately was caught because he raped a woman in my building, the woman who lived below me. And she came out screaming. And so, finally—but his MO, as he went around all of the upper part of Central Park, was the same as what happened to this—the horror show of what happened to the Central Park jogger. He would rape women. He would attack them. He would attack them in front of their children. And the police were so intent on getting the five of you, that this man, who was committing these crimes at the time, who was sent to prison for these crimes, was never in any way linked, because of their blindness in this case.
YUSEF SALAAM: Yes, yes. And, you know, the worst part about it is, like you said, their blindness, their rush to judgment, their wanting to solve this crime and solve it quickly. They dropped the ball. I mean, they dropped it in the worst way. The young woman that you speak of that was his last victim, she was a pregnant young Latina woman who he raped while she—you know, her children were in the next room. He raped her, and then he murdered her. And, I mean, that right there is a terrible—
AMY GOODMAN: She was a woman before—right, she was a woman before, so he continued his murder and rape spree—
YUSEF SALAAM: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —as the police focused on the five of you.
YUSEF SALAAM: Yes, indeed. Worst situation in the world. And the worst part about it, as well as this, the way that the police went after us and the reports that began to filter from the police department through the media began to paint a picture that we were the ones that the media—I mean, that the public needed to hang for this crime.
And like I said, that same kind of thing plays out today. There’s still this murkiness, because the truth of the story that was told back then wasn’t really the whole truth. And so, people today still feel like something about that case just—you know, the DA at the time said there was DNA evidence. And then, when the DNA evidence didn’t match, they quickly just quieted that and then moved on with the case. And the worst part about it is that that left a negative residue in the minds of many people, because the only thing that they remembered was there was something about DNA in this case.
The false confessions were even worse, because here it was, we were explaining witnesses—eyewitness testimony to what we had seen but had not participated in, and they flipped it around on us and said, “Well, the reason why they didn’t rape the Central Park jogger was because they were beating up other people in other parts of the park.” And the reality is that there were people who had been arrested and got convicted for assaulting those individuals in Central Park. They never became known as Central Park Five members.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Yusef, I wanted to ask you, as you’re hearing now in this presidential—in this presidential campaign all the allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump himself by women coming forward and his own caught-on-tape admissions of participating in sexual assaults, although he then claimed it was just locker room banter, what’s your reaction now to what Trump is facing?
YUSEF SALAAM: You know, he definitely sounds like a sexual predator. This is absolutely absurd. This is not a 12-year-old hanging out in a locker room talking about something that he wants to do, not even a 20-year-old hanging out in a locker room, so to speak, talking about something that he has done or his sexual exploits or things like that. This is a person who’s on the cusp, if not already being 60 years old. This is a person who’s—everything about him is part of his fiber, the fiber of his life and the fabric of who he actually is. So, for him now to come back out and say, “Uh-oh, I got caught. Let me see how I can spin this,” and then say, “Oh, it was just locker room banter”—you mean to tell me that you were talking about assaulting women, sexually depraved acts, going after them in this kind of—what’s the word that he said? He said he was a B-I-T-C-H, you know. You know, when you think about the nature in what he’s saying, it’s absurd that people will dismiss it and say, “Yeah, he was just—he was just talking—talking the talk.”
AMY GOODMAN: It was not only—it was not only these women who have come forward—and seems every day or every other day now more women are coming forward—his own wife, Ivana Trump, accused him of rape, as well.
YUSEF SALAAM: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Yusef Salaam, final comment? Are you calling for an apology from Donald Trump? The city settled with you and the four others, who together are called the Central Park Five, for $41 million, New York City?
YUSEF SALAAM: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you asking from—for Donald Trump right now?
YUSEF SALAAM: Well, you know, I mean, I don’t necessarily know if I’m asking for an apology from Donald Trump, because, quite obviously, I really don’t believe he’s going to give us an apology. You know, it would great for him to show the human side of him, more of a humanity, and say, “You know what? I was wrong.” I mean, he tried to say that he was wrong with regards to this information that came out about him, but he’s continued to harp on this same line and say that he was not wrong. The reason why he believes that he was correct is because what the police department said. But it was found that what they said and how everything was put together was completely unfactual. I mean, back in 1989, you know, you had these false confessions that the public had viewed. It was almost like you would turn on the news, and every single day there was this new report about something about the Central Park jogger case, you know.
Best thing that happened was that when Ken Burns revisited this in 2012, and he had Raymond Santana read his false confession on video. Now, mind you, Raymond was 14 years old at the time, but in 1989 people absolutely believed what he was saying. And here he is, an adult, reading his 14-year-old false confession—and, of course, this is not the exact same words that he used, but it was something like, you know, “At approximately 9:00 p.m., me and a group of my colleagues begin to walk south.” And he looks up and says, “What 14-year-old boy talks like this?”
You know, Donald Trump needs to be fired from this presidency—fired from running for president of the United States, fired—maybe—we need to send him to another planet.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Yusef Salaam, I want to thank you for being with us. We will link to your piece in The Washington Post headlined “I’m one of the Central Park Five. Donald Trump won’t leave me alone.” Thanks so much for being with us. Yusef is chief executive officer of Yusef Speaks. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’ll be back in a minute.