By Tandy Lau
The “Central Park Five’’ was once six. Steven Lopez never found himself portrayed as a main character in a Ken Burns documentary or an Oprah Winfrey Network series. But he too was arrested and indicted in his youth for the rape and attempted murder of white jogger Trisha Meili alongside his famous quintet of Black and brown teen co-defendants back in 1989.
While the others were wrongfully convicted of the crime and vindicated in 2002, Lopez pled guilty to the lesser charge of robbing another victim on that fateful night to avoid the rape case and remained on the hook for the bargain up until this week. On a stormy Monday morning, Judge Ellen N. Biben granted Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s motion to vacate Lopez’s conviction and dismiss the indictment.
“This matter cast a long shadow over our criminal justice system for a long time,” said Bragg. “Today, we take a step forward, but I think we should not forget, one of the main pillars of our Post-Conviction Justice Unit is applying forward lessons. So we’ve got this specific of Mr. Lopez’s conviction, but we also have [to generally look] at things like how people are questioned that result in false confessions, or DNA analysis and forensics—looking at that and applying those lessons going forward is very important.”
Now in the history books, the “Central Park Five” case remains one of the most egregious examples of racist, racial profiling by the criminal justice system and media sensationalization by non-Black news organizations in New York City history.
Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise were pressured into confessions by police and vilified by journalists, who referred to the teens, none older than 16, as a “wolf pack” and “roving gang” while misconstruing the African American Vernacular English term “wilding” to define violent crime waves. Turns out, there was no “pack” or “gang” at all, with convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes confessing to the actual crime in 2002. Over a decade later, the City of New York settled with the now “Exonerated Five” for $41 million.
But as Lopez’s recent exculpation shows, justice is still a work in progress for the damage done by the infamous trial. According to his lawyer Eric Renfroe, he served roughly four years in prison, close to his maximum sentence. While Lopez will never regain the lost time, overturning the conviction makes the 48-year-old’s life easier.
“The collateral consequences of a conviction are many,” said Bragg. “Even though the laws have changed somewhat in recent years, and even though we’ve got a state law prohibiting reflexive discrimination based on criminal history record, we all know from the statistics of the job application process that the effects of having a conviction on employment are significant.”
The overturned conviction is the work of Bragg’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit. Announced back in April and headed by Terri Rosenblatt, the taskforce overlooks former cases from the Manhattan DA’s Office that require a second glance.
As for Lopez, he’s happy to stay the “forgotten” sixth member of the “Central Park Five,” as Renfroe repeatedly maintained the newly exonerated man wanted his privacy. He declined to speak as he left the court, aside from a brief “thank you” to Judge Biben. Little more needs to be said than the simple message Bragg recalls hearing from Lopez’s lawyer: he got his name back.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w