'Never give up': Raymond Santana of 'Central Park Five' shares his story at OC
For Raymond Santana, April 19, 1989, seemed like an ordinary day, part of a long holiday weekend that was perfect for spending time with family and friends.
He had no idea how drastically his life was about to change and why would he?
Just the day before, he'd been a self-described "young, naive 14-year-kid who enjoyed life."
But the day after, he and four other teens were on their way to becoming a notorious group called the "Central Park Five."
The youths were wrongfully convicted of a heinous crime they didn't commit. They were exonerated in 2002 after a years-long battle for justice.
Santana talked about how he overcame injustice on Monday at Oklahoma Christian University, 2501 E Memorial Road. Now an advocate for criminal justice reform, he was the latest speaker in the university's "History Speaks" civil rights lecture series held during Black History Month.
The free public presentation drew an estimated 995 people who filled the school's Baugh Auditorium and the overflow areas that had been set up in anticipation of the large crowd.
The event's popularity wasn't surprising.
Renewed interest in the quintet's ordeal has come in recent years through two films: Ken Burns' 2012 PBS documentary "The Central Park Five," and, notably, Ava DuVernay's 2019 Netflix mini-series "When They See Us."
Gary Jones, OC's assistant dean of students, talked informally with Santana during Monday's presentation. Santana told the crowd that his life changed forever when he was taken to a police precinct for questioning back in 1989. He said he and his grandmother didn't initially realize that police were looking for the person who had brutally beaten and raped a white woman jogging through New York's Central Park on April 19. She'd been left for dead and police were hunting for her attacker.
Santana, who is Hispanic, said four black youths he didn't know — Anton McCray, 15; Kevin Richardson, 14; Yusef Salaam, 15; and Korey Wise, 16 — were also being interrogated. The teens were initially held for hours and illegally interviewed without their parents or an attorney present. Food and water were withheld from them as they faced intense questioning by police.
Santana said his grandmother arrived at the police station and witnessed some of his interrogation, but officers used shady tactics to confuse her. He said several times, one police officer would take her out of the room presumably to talk to her, while another officer would stay and ramp up the questioning and pressure for him to confess to attacking the jogger.
"The pressure is so great at this point. I'm just trying to get the pressure to stop," said.
Santana said his statement with his grandmother present was about 2 1/2 pages but after the intense sessions alone with police, it grew to five pages. By the time his father got off work and came to the police station, he began to realize that his son was in serious trouble. Officers had the confession they sought.
Several of the other youths confessed to the crime and the confessions were filmed. The teens later recanted, and said the confessions were coerced and made under extreme duress. They said they were innocent and refused a plea deal that required them to plead guilty even though it might have led to less harsh penalties. Their attorneys argued that they were victims of police mishandling the jogger's case, systemic racism and classism.
The teens were charged and ultimately convicted of beating and raping the jogger, Trisha Meili. Santana said he remembered that they were widely vilified in the media which described them as a "wolf pack" and "super predators" and the attack as a "wilding," essentially a violent, animal-like assault.
"For me, life was over," he said. "As a 14-year-old boy, here we are fighting for our lives and we get this guilty verdict."
But life wasn't over — and that was the crux of Santana's message on Monday. He said he felt "hopeless" as he served his sentence in a juvenile correctional facility. He said he eventually came to realize that he would have to fight for what the system owed him and the four other men: righting the huge wrong that had been done to them.
"The system isn't going to give you anything for free. You have to fight first," Santana said.
The younger teens, including Santana, served between six and seven years in juvenile correctional facilities, but Wise was charged as an adult and served more than a dozen years behind prison bars. After the men had served their sentences, another man, Matias Reyes, came forward to claim sole responsibility for the attack and DNA corroborated his confession. Already imprisoned, Reyes was a convicted serial rapist and murderer and his DNA and confession matched evidence.
With their convictions overturned, Santana and the other members of the "Central Park Five" soon became known as "The Exonerated Five." In 2003, the men sued the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. The city settled the case in 2014, awarding the men $41 million.
Santana said over the years, he had "questioned God several times," asking, ‘Why, why did this happen to us?’ We were 14 and 15 years old."
However, he had vowed to persevere in his quest for justice.
Jones asked Santana what he would say to someone who was close to giving up on the challenges they face.
"I would tell them plain and simple: Never give up," he said. He said the message he tries to convey to people, particularly students, is that they must use their voices to challenge injustice when they see it. He encouraged students to use their education for good — wherever their gifts and talents take them.
"We understand that this is where the voices are. This is where the potential is," Santana said of schools, colleges and universities.
Despite the financial settlement, the city of New York did not apologize for wrongfully prosecuting the men.
Santana said he channels his energy in a positive way instead of using it to fuel angry, negative words and actions.
Besides, he thinks his continued criminal justice reform work and his partnership with The Innocence Project is a way to exact a certain revenge on those who hurt him and his fellow "five." Thanks to their exoneration and the films that have drawn the public's interest back to the events of April 1989, the quintet has a platform to talk about their experiences, encourage others and push for change.
"Proper revenge is to be successful," Santana said.
"The blessing is God puts us on a platform. He gives us our voice."