‘From Central Park 5 to Exonerated 5’ – A talk with Raymond Santana

By Brennan Atkins,

Arts & Features Editor

In the spring of 1989, five teenagers were wrongfully tried and convicted for the alleged assault and rape of a jogger.

The five boys, between 14 and 16 years old, had no evidence linking them to the case, and the city of New York deemed the teenagers “The Central Park 5.” The conviction was overturned on Dec. 19, 2002, when detectives linked unidentified DNA to a convicted murderer and serial rapist, who confessed to the crime.

The defendants,Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam.

“From Central Park 5 to Exonerated 5” was included in the Olivia A. Davidson Voices of Color Lecture Series. The event was hosted by David A. Baldwin via Zoom Sept. 17.

Raymond Santana, one of the Exonerated 5, met with psychology professor Michael Greenstein for an interview discussing the flaws of the American justice system, the vulnerability of juveniles during interrogations, and racial issues still present today.

Santana started off the interview explaining to the audience how he got so involved with the case, and rhetorically asked, “How can somebody confess to something they didn’t do?

“The first thing we try to examine is the landscape – look at the playing field. Here we were, 14-to-15-year-old kids, who never had any dealings with the law, never had police contact, no records, nothing like that. And then you take a seasoned veteran detective … the scope starts to change and you start to see more detectives, and the key factor is the unknown. Not knowing what’s going to happen.”

Raymond describes the interogrations as becoming “more intense” as time went on, and admits to being held in interrogation rooms for 15 to 30 hours, without sleep, food, or water. Santana said that his grandmother was the one taking care of him at the time, and spoke very little English. The police would heavily interrogate Santana when he was alone, only to go back to casual questioning when his grandmother was in the room.

He recounts the third time his grandmother was taken out of the room, when a detective banged his fist on the desk, and lunged towards Santana. “At that moment, for a 14-year-old kid, I am so terrified that I’m thinking I’m not gonna make it out of the precinct. My grandmother isn’t in the room with me. It’s about three detectives. I’m afraid – I’m thinking I’m going to die.”

Santana said the detectives used the classic “good cop, bad cop” technique, saying they would lash out at him, only to send in another detective with a calm demeanor.

The detectives would try to get Santana to make a statement about the other members by giving him an ultimatum – a confession or jail. At the time, Santana did not know the other four members very well.

“Not knowing what to say, because I don’t know the facts, I can’t really tell you – so all I can say is ‘Kevin did it.’ He then says, ‘Well, what did Kevin do?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’”

Santana explained that even though he knew he was lying, he felt indebted to the officer that promised his freedom – for him, any answer was better than no answer at the time. “At that moment, the pressure was so great that I didn’t know what to do and I felt stuck. To stop the pressure, I lied,” Santana said.

After discussing the intricacies of the case, Greenstein shifted the conversation to a modern setting, asking Santana about the recent release of the Netflix series, “When They See Us,” which focuses on the Exonerated 5’s experience.

“For the five of us, it was about being at a point in our lives that we can control the narrative, we can sit down and tell the truth… This was our moment to really go in-depth in our story, and let it all out,” Santana said.

Santana felt as if his identity was always going to be known as one of the “Central Park 5,” and was so “embedded” in American history that he would never be able to shake this label.

“We thought that’s how we were going to our grave – like, my tombstone would read ‘Raymond Santana, one of the Central Park 5.’”

He credits Oprah Winfrey with their new title, saying she “waved her wand and magic came out, and she’s like, ‘From now on, you will be known as the Exonerated 5.’”

Santana also shared his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement that blew up over the summer with the passing of George Floyd. He said it’s unfortunate that he gets a sense of validity when tragedies like this occur – it shows that this isn’t an isolated incident, and continues to happen all over the country.

“It’s unfortunate that we have these tragedies that happen, but they happen, and we have to show the light and expose the system for what it is,” Santana said.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, President Donald Trump publicly stated he believes the boys were guilty, and paid $85,000 for ad space calling for the death penalty. “He made it OK for people to want to kill us … we were receiving death threats on a regular basis. This was the person who started all that,” Santana said.

To this day, Trump still believes the Exonerated 5 are guilty, and there are citizens who follow this narrative.

“At this point, we’re over 30 years in, and if you still think we’re guilty now, I don’t know what to tell you – I really don’t know what to tell you,” he said laughing.

While on the theme of people being stuck in the past, Santana believes the American justice system hasn’t changed, but rather adapted to current situations. “The thing is, there have been changes, not changes that we can say will make a better system. As long as the system relies on punishment, and not rehabilitation, then it will keep going the same direction…

“It’s about occupying that bench space. It doesn’t matter who it is,” Santana said.

He explained that the system knows most non-violent offenders are going to be put back into prison, and that quality of life crimes such as “jumping a turnstile” or “urinating in the corner,” are not aimed to help the general public, but to fund the system.

Santana urges those that don’t believe in systematic racism to “look at the history,” explaining how broken homes give way for children to be part of the system. “Welfare, prison, probation, parole, unemployment … These are traps set to destroy the family in one way or the other,” Santana said.

“Look at New York City. Stop and frisk was a bogus tactic that was used by the police department to [raise] the numbers … it worked for them. They rigged the system, they gave out these false numbers, and they got the budget so they can operate,” Santana said.

The interview transitioned into Santana giving proactive ways students can get involved, and what they can do to change the justice system.

“It’s not going to be an overnight change,” Santana said.

Santana explained that he has always been drawn towards the college crowds, as they’re the people already beating the system. “The system wants you to occupy a prison cell, not a college dorm.”

This message explains Santana’s signature hashtag, #occupyallspaces. The hashtag encourages youth to become police officers, judges, prosecutors, or even the president. It’s unrealistic to think everyone can become an activist on the frontlines, but Santana argues you have to do your activism in the best way you know how.

“That young student that wants to be a prosecutor – I’ll never tell you not to be a prosecutor. I would tell him to be a prosecutor, but the best prosecutor you can be – just don’t cut any corners, don’t cheat the system,” Santana said.

Santana admitted there’s not a definable “best” way to go about reform. He wants to get over the ideology that one’s solution is better than the other’s.  “We have to battle it from different angles. … As long as me and you aren’t arguing about what the solution is, we can focus on the problem.

“It’s a long term investment. This is chess. We might not be able to see the fruits of our labor, but my kids probably will. It’s about having a better tomorrow,” Santana said.

Santana recently released his new line of voting-related apparel on his store, Park Madison NYC, and is another way he is trying to beat the system at its own game. He wants the younger generation to understand the power of a vote, and what happens when people don’t do it.

“The more you use your voice, the more you become accustomed to speaking out, and not being afraid. That starts with exercising your political power,” Santana said.

Santana has been working with The Innocence Project, an organization that dedicates its time in freeing people wrongfully imprisoned. Starting in New York, it has expanded to locations all over the country, including the Boston University School of Law.

He stresses that you don’t have to be a lawyer in order to help the Innocence Project – just going in to learn and acquire resources is enough for somebody to make a change.

“Everybody has an opportunity to fight in this movement, everybody has a part to play. Not everybody has to be on the frontlines… you have people that are writers, who are musicians, who are artists, and we use our platform to engage and say, ‘Look, whatever you do, if this is what you believe in, and you believe in freedom, justice, and equality, you have a voice and you can use your medium to get your voice across.’”