NEW YORK – Once considered by some to be symbols of danger, crime and racial tension in New York, the Central Park Five have been cleared of the brutal crime of which they were wrongfully convicted, and they've been compensated by the city. Now, the three members of The Five who still live in New York have embarked on a campaign that they say will help prevent others from falsely incriminating themselves.
The reform that Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam propose ironically calls for an enhancement of a technique used to secure their convictions.
The three men, along with heir co-defendants Korey Wise and Antron McCray, were recorded on video in 1989 confessing to attacking, raping, and almost killing Central Park jogger Trisha Meili.
They were 14 to 16 years old at the time. Now, in their early to mid-forties, Santana, Richardson and Salaam told PIX11 News in an interview that their station house confessions were coerced.
"What people don't actually see," said Santana, "is the whole process of the confession."
The trio this month are releasing a public service announcement with The Innocence Project, which helped to secure their exoneration.
The PSA urges the New York State Legislature to pass a bill that Governor Andew Cuomo has called for. It has passed the state senate in a past session, but not the state assembly. One major focus of the bill, according to The Five activists, is simple, and of utmost importance.
"We began to realize how many other Central Park Fives are out there," said Santana.
Each of the five defendants, plus one other teen, who never confessed, were questioned for at least 24 hours non-stop.
"First, there's fear," Santana told PIX11 News. "It's cold in the room, they don't want you to sleep. You don't know why you're here."
That's how the process begins, according to Santana. One of his fellow co-defendants explained that the problem is that the beginning of being held in custody is not shown.
"People only see the end," Kevin Richardson said. "They say, 'Oh, they have their parents in front of them [when] they confessed.' We want them to see the whole process."
It was also a process which, some experts say, can overlook the most important evidence.
"Put together a confession, and match it against DNA, and the confession will win," said Saul Kassin of John Jay and Williams Colleges.
An author of 12 books and dozens of articles and studies, Dr. Kassin is the country's foremost researcher on wrongful confessions and convictions. He said in an interview that the innocent are actually the most likely to confess.
"In the back of their mind," he said, "many say, 'I didn't think it would be such a big deal, because I really didn't do anything wrong.'
"It's stressful," Kassin added. "People will do whatever it takes to get out of this situation, even if there are long term consequences."
That was the case for the Central Park Five, he said, and he supported the exonerees' argument that from the moment a person of interest in a major crime is brought into a room at the police precinct and mirandized, their interaction with police should be recorded.
"Basically, you see what happened behind closed doors," said Richardson. "You'll see exactly what happened. A lot goes on you don't know about."
He, Salaam, Santana and another co-defendant, Antron McCray, were locked up for seven years. Korey Wise, who was the oldest of the group, served 13 years, before a breakthrough took place for them.
"If the public knew that we were completely innocent when we went to court," Salaam said, "it would have turned out very different for us."
He added that he thinks Lourdes Gonzalez would be alive today, as well. She was the 24 year-old pregnant mother who was raped and stabbed to death by serial rapist Matias Reyes, two months after he attacked and raped Meili in Central Park.
Reyes admitted to sexually assaulting and nearly killing the Central Park jogger more than 12 years after the crime. When Reyes did admit his guilt, in 2002, it was proven that his DNA -- and his alone -- was found on Meili's body. The five were vindicated.
"We've taken this loss and turned it into a positive.," said Salaam.
The five received, in 2014, approximately $8 million a piece from New York City in compensation. Still, Salaam said, "a lot of times, people will see us and say, 'Get over it, you're home now.' We're still coming home. It's a lifelong process.
One important way, they said, to carry out that process, is to speak publicly about what happened to them.
That includes making the PSA that will soon be released. They said that it's particularly important to them to speak to young people.
"Future lawyers, judges and even citizens," said Salaam. "When they're on a jury, we want them to be more critical in terms of what they see."AlertMe