Sixth teenager charged in Central Park Jogger case will be exonerated

A forgotten co-defendant of the Central Park Five, who like them was charged with the rape of a jogger in a case that has rocked New York and the nation, is set to have his related conviction overturned on Monday.

The case against the Five — teenage boys of color who were innocent of the 1989 sexual assault of a white woman but were convicted based on false confessions obtained by police — continues to shape attitudes around racism in the criminal justice system, the media and society at large. But the story of the sixth man – Steven Lopez – had until then been virtually ignored.

Mr Lopez, who was arrested aged 15, struck a deal with prosecutors just before his trial two years later to avoid the more serious rape charge, instead pleading guilty to stealing a jogger .

Like his peers, he went to prison; collectively, the band served nearly 45 years. Shortly after the real assailant was identified in the 2002 Central Park rape, authorities overturned the rape convictions against all five men. They then won a $41 million settlement in New York and became the subjects of movies, books and TV shows.

But Mr Lopez, now 48, has received no money or media attention, and his story is far less well known.

His robbery conviction is expected to be thrown out Monday in a Manhattan courthouse. The exoneration will be the first under Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, who has vowed during his two years on the campaign trail to bolster the work of the office’s wrongful convictions unit.

A lawyer for Mr. Lopez declined to comment before the hearing. It is not clear whether Mr Lopez had contact with the men now sometimes referred to as the Exonerated Five: Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam.

“We’re talking about the Central Park Five, the Exonerated Five, but there were six people on that indictment,” Mr Bragg said. “And the other five who have been charged, their convictions have been overturned. And now is the time to drop Mr. Lopez’s charge.

Mr Lopez was 15 when he was arrested and charged with the rape of jogger, 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili. Mr. Lopez also faced charges related to the theft of a jogger from the park the same night, April 19, 1989.

According to a review of his case by the Manhattan District Attorney’s post-conviction justice unit, Mr. Lopez was arrested in Central Park after a series of assaults broke out, including that of the jogger who was thrown to the ground and beaten.

Police held the teenagers in a compound for hours and hours, pushing them over the details of what happened at the park. The teenagers, aged 14 to 16, said they were made to blame each other for the crime.

Mr. Lopez was in a holding cell for about 20 hours before being questioned. His parents, who were not native English speakers, were present, but no translator was provided. After nearly two and a half hours of questioning, a detective drafted a statement which Mr. Lopez and his father signed.

The statement placed Mr Lopez at the scene of the attack on the jogger. But despite aggressive questioning, Mr Lopez refused to say he had been involved in the assault on Ms Meili.

While a number of other teenagers, interviewed under the same duress, said Mr Lopez had committed crimes against the male and female jogger, there was no forensic evidence linking him to the attack against the male jogger. Forensic investigators, however, identified a hair found on Mr Lopez’s clothing as possibly belonging to the jogger. (The original investigation’s hair strand analysis was later determined to be unreliable.)

Ms. Meili had been beaten up and left for dead. Details of the crime horrified New York City and inflamed racial tensions. Mr. Lopez and the other five boys have been charged with rape. (Ms Meili remained anonymous for more than a decade after the attack before identifying herself; she opposed the settlement and believes more than one person assaulted her.)

The teenagers arrested that night, all of whom were black or Hispanic, were treated as symptoms of a city descending into criminal chaos. They were condemned by police, prosecutors, the media and a famous real estate developer, Donald J. Trump, who placed full-page ads in city newspapers calling on them to face the death penalty. They were often called “beasts” or “wolf pack”, as if they weren’t human.

Their trials took place the year before the brutal beating of Rodney King, and many Americans were unaware at the time of the extent of police misconduct and the coercive tactics that can lead to false confessions.

It was decided that the six teenagers accused of rape would be tried in three separate proceedings. Mr. McCray, Mr. Salaam and Mr. Santana were convicted on August 18, 1990. Mr. Richardson and Mr. Wise were convicted on December 11, 1990.

A month later, just as his trial was due to begin, prosecutors offered Mr. Lopez a plea bargain in which he would plead guilty to first-degree robbery in exchange for the rape charge being dropped. Mr. Lopez agreed and was sentenced to one and a half to four and a half years in state prison.

In February 2002, DNA evidence indicated that an uncharged suspect, Matias Reyes, attacked the jogger. Mr Reyes, who was serving time for a separate rape and murder, confessed to the crime.

That year, then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau asked that the rape convictions be overturned despite objections from police leaders. In the trial that followed the Central Park Five’s exoneration, it emerged that a number of those who had prepared to testify against Mr Lopez disavowed their previous statements about his guilt. One said he only named Mr Lopez after being briefed on the name by police detectives.

In 2014, the Central Park Five received $41 million from New York City. Once, the five teenagers had represented to many people a town that was on the verge of spiraling out of control. But their story has come to symbolize the overreach of the justice system, the credulity of the media, and American society’s deep-rooted racism toward black and brown youth.

Until Monday, Mr. Lopez had been a forgotten part of their story. He did not appear in the 2012 documentary Ken Burns made about the case, and no actor playing him appeared in Ava DuVernay’s 2019 TV dramatization of the case, “When They Were see”.

Mr. Lopez’s story was ignored, in part because he pleaded guilty. (Another defendant, Michael Briscoe, pleaded guilty to assaulting a third jogger; his conviction stands.) He has served more than three years of his sentence and has not appealed his conviction.

Instead, nearly 20 years after his co-defendants were exonerated, Mr. Lopez quietly reintroduced himself to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in February 2021, asking for his conviction to be reviewed. The following month, the bureau agreed and began its review of the case.

On the trail, Mr. Bragg, who speaks frequently of the Exonerated Five experience, made revamped unity a central tenet of his campaign, and upon taking office he recruited Terri S. Rosenblatt, although known in New York legal circles for her work on criminal defense and civil rights cases, to run it.

Ms. Rosenblatt said Mr. Lopez’s exoneration was notable as an example of something that happens all too often: an innocent defendant pleading guilty.

“We talk a lot about wrongful trial convictions, but there can also be guilty pleas that are wrongful,” she said. “And our current understanding of people who falsely confess translates to people who will sometimes even falsely admit in court to a crime they didn’t commit.”

Mr. Bragg, who in January became Black Manhattan’s first district attorney, was a 15-year-old living in Harlem when the Central Park case started making headlines. He recalls effortlessly recounting the young men’s experiences, saying he played basketball and rode the bus outside the same park where the events that led to their arrests took place.

Mr Bragg was a friend of Ken Thompson, who served as Black Brooklyn’s first district attorney and who, before his death in 2016, became known for the work of a unit that reviewed questionable convictions.

Such work was “a cornerstone of the administration of justice”, Mr. Bragg said. And he pointed out that in times of public concern for security — as was the case in 1989 and as is still the case today — exonerations like Mr. Lopez’s could help restore confidence in the functioning of the judicial system.

“I am beyond humbled to be able to truly replicate this work,” he said.

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