When Trisha Meili’s body was discovered in New York City’s Central Park early in the morning on April 20, 1989, she had been so badly beaten and repeatedly raped that she remained in a coma for nearly two weeks and retained no memory of the attack.
The brutal assault of the 28-year-old white investment banker, who had been out for a jog the night before, led to widespread public outcry and the quick arrest and subsequent conviction of five black and Latino teens—Antron McCray, 15, Kevin Richardson, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, Raymond Santana, 14, and Korey Wise, 16—who came to be known as the Central Park Five.
But, in 2002, after serving sentences that ranged from six to 13 years for what then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch called “the crime of the century,” new DNA evidence and a confession proved convicted rapist Matias Reyes was the true, lone culprit. The charges against the five men were vacated and they eventually received at $41 million settlement.
The attack ignited a media firestorm, highlighting racial tensions in the city and playing into preconceived notions about African-American youth. When the five former teens convicted in the case were finally exonerated, many community leaders decried the miscarriage of justice that sent the Central Park Five to prison. The case became a flashpoint for illustrating racial disparities in sentencing and the inequities at the heart of the criminal justice system.
Attackers Described as ‘Wolf Pack’
Meili’s rape and attack was so severe, she lost 75 percent of her blood, suffering a severe skull fracture among other injuries. The woman, identified in the media as the Central Park Jogger until she made her name public in 2003, had been bludgeoned with a rock, tied up, raped and left for dead.
“The woman is bleeding from five deep cuts across her forehead and scalp; patients who lose this much blood are generally dead,” Meili writes in her 2003 book, I am the Central Park Jogger, of the attack. “Her skull has been fractured, and her eye will later have to be put back in its place. … There is extreme swelling of the brain caused by the blows to the head. The probable result is intellectual, physical, and emotional incapacity, if not death. Permanent brain damage seems inevitable.”
With the attack occurring during a particularly violent era in New York City—1,896 homicides, a record at the time, took place a year earlier in 1988—police officers were quick to find somewhere to point the blame.
An April 21, 1989 story in the New York Daily News reported that on the night of the crime, a 30-person gang, or so-called “wolf pack” of teens launched a series of attacks nearby, including assaults on a man carrying groceries, a couple on a tandem bike, another male jogger and a taxi driver. Then, the News reported “at least a dozen youths grabbed the woman and dragged her off the path through heavy underbrush and trees, down a ravine toward a small body of water known as The Loch. It was there, 200 feet north of the transverse, that she was beaten and assaulted, police said. ‘They dragged her down like she was an animal,’ one police official said.”
According to New York magazine, police told reporters the teens used the word “wilding” in describing their acts and “that while in a holding cell the suspects had laughed and sung the rap hit ‘Wild Thing.’”
A 'Media Tsunami'
The crime was splashed across front pages for months, with the teens depicted as symbols of violence and called “bloodthirsty,” “animals,” “savages” and “human mutations,” the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism and research organization, reports.
Newspaper columnists joined in. The New York Post’s Pete Hamill wrote that the teens hailed “from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance…a land with no fathers…to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”
Adding fuel to the fire, weeks after the attack, in May 1989, real estate developer (and future U.S. president) Donald Trump took out full-page ads in The New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post and New York Newsday with the headline, "Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!"
“It was a media tsunami,” former New York Daily News police bureau chief David Krajicek tells Poynter. “It was so competitive. The city desk absolutely demanded that we come up with details that other reporters didn’t have.”
Arrest and Trial of ‘The Central Park Five’
Richardson and Santana, both part of the alleged “wolf pack,” were arrested for “unlawful assembly” on April 19, before police learned of the jogger’s attack. They were detained for hours before their parents were eventually called. Meili was found early the next morning while the teens were still at the precinct, and a link was made. Korey, Salaam and McCray were soon brought in for questioning.
“Five were arrested shortly before 11 p.m. on Wednesday at 102d Street and Central Park West in connection with the pipe attack on the male jogger,” The New York Times reported the day after Meili was found. “Three were charged as juveniles with second-degree assault and unlawful assembly, and two were charged with unlawful assembly and released that night to their parents.”
Four of the five teens, all from Harlem, confessed on videotape following hours of interrogation. The boys later recanted and plead not guilty, saying their confessions had been coerced.
“When we were arrested, the police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours,” Salaam wrote in the Washington Post years later in 2016. “Under duress, we falsely confessed. Though we were innocent, we spent our formative years in prison, branded as rapists.”
Despite inconsistencies in their stories, no eye witnesses and no DNA evidence, the five were convicted in two trials in 1990. McCray, Salaam and Santana were found guilty of rape, assault, robbery and riot. Richardson was found guilty of attempted murder, rape, assault and robbery. Korey was found guilty of sexual abuse, assault and riot. They spent between six and 13 years behind bars.
Charges Vacated After Shocking Confession
In 2002 a convicted serial rapist and murderer already serving time, confessed to the Meili attack. Matias Reyes was a positive DNA match to evidence found at the crime scene. On December 19, 2002, a New York Supreme Court justice vacated the convictions of the five previously accused men.
In 2003, the Central Park Five filed a civil lawsuit against New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. City officials fought the case for more than a decade, before finally settling for $41 million dollars.
According to The New York Times, the payout equaled about $1 million for each year of imprisonment, with four men serving about seven years and Wise serving about 13.
“The Central Park Five: About the Case,” by Ken Burns, November 23, 2012, PBS
“The Central Park Five, Criminal Justice, and Donald Trump,” by Jelani Cobb, April 19, 2019, New Yorker
“Central Park Revisited,” by Chris Smith, October 21, 2002, New York magazine