Sixth boy charged in Central Park jogger case is exonerated

NEW YORK, July 25 (Reuters) – A long-ignored co-defendant of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape of a white jogger on the basis of false confessions, has been exonerated from a related conviction by a New York judge on Monday.

Steven Lopez was 15 when he was first named in the indictment along with other black and Latino teens for the nighttime rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, an investment banker whose horrific injuries were the subject of sensationalist media coverage.

Lopez later pleaded guilty to stealing a male jogger that same night as part of a deal with prosecutors that saw charges alleging his involvement in the attack on Meili dropped, and was sentenced to between 1-1 /2 and 4-1/2 years in a state prison.

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On Monday, New York State Supreme Court Judge Ellen Biben granted a motion by the Manhattan Chief Prosecutor and an attorney representing Lopez to vacate the plea entered by Lopez when she was 17, ruling that it was unintentional, unconstitutional and based in part on false witness statements.

“What happened to you was a profound injustice and an American injustice,” Eric Shapiro Lopez, a defense attorney who was unborn when his client was charged, said in remarks to Lopez in court. “They say justice delayed is justice denied and I’m sorry we had to wait 30 years.” Lopez, whose long beard is now graying, appeared to have tears in his eyes.

Meili was beaten and left for dead. The attack was seized upon by local media as an emblem of soaring crime rates in New York City in the 1980s. News reports frequently referred to the boys arrested by the New York Police Department as animals.

Decades before becoming President of the United States, Donald Trump, then a prominent real estate developer, ran full-page advertisements in city newspapers calling for the boys to be executed.

Later, the five boys convicted at trial were exonerated when the real assailant confessed and was linked to the crime through DNA evidence. The case has become a watchword for judicial excesses, racial profiling by law enforcement and news outlets, and police malpractice forcing confessions from innocent people.

Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, now known as the Exonerated Five, spent years in prison. They filed a lawsuit against the city, which was settled for $41 million in 2014.

Lopez was not part of this trial, and her story has often been overlooked in coverage of the exoneration of her former co-defendants.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told the court there was no physical evidence linking Lopez to the attacks on either jogger, and that witness statements naming him had been recanted .

That, coupled with Lopez’s youth at the time, made the plea involuntary, Bragg told the court.

“Mr. Lopez, we wish you peace and healing,” the judge said after dismissing the indictment.

“Thank you,” Lopez replied, his only remarks in court.

“Ordered,” the judge said, as Lopez rose to shake hands with the chief prosecutor.

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Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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