By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
The sure look of Zen in Sharonne's eyes is profoundly stirring, considering her experience. "My child was raised behind barbed wire," she said. "And when one person is imprisoned, his whole family is in prison." Crystal Cuffee remembers all the holidays she spent at prison and life lived in spurts between trial and appeals. Salaam says it was like a pit that gets deeper each time you think it could get better.
Yet it could have been worse. Sharonne was teaching a class at Parsons School of Design the night of April 20 when police came to her home for Yusef, who wasn't there. Her 16-year-old daughter and her younger son, 13, went to the door. One of the officers asked the younger brother his name and then checked for it on a "master list" of suspects, says Sharonne. "They were ready to take him."
Just then Yusef walked up, and the cops "invited" him to the station; he wasn't old enough for forced questioning without a parent. Kharey Wise happened to be with Yusef. Though Wise was not on the list, they also "invited" him to the precinct, she says. Most of their neighbors agree that it didn't take much more than being an African American or Latino teen to get picked up during the "sweep" in the Schomburg area that resulted in more than 30 arrests in two days.
Not in the sweep, Richardson and Santana had been stopped walking by the park at 10:15 p.m. the night of the attack, several hours before police knew of the rape. They were taken in for suspicion of assaulting other joggers. It wasn't until about 4 a.m. that prosecutors linked them to the rape, and even later before Richardson's family knew of the charge, says Crystal Cuffee.
A core group of people in the Harlem community came out in support of the youth, but many either denounced the boys or simply stayed away. Salaam and Cuffee remember the few churches that helped, and that Reverend Al Sharpton came out on McCray's behalf. Salaam says that parents from her building would cross the street when they saw her coming. She suspects that many knew it could have been their own boys, but felt a need to "show white people" that the black community would not put up with rapists. Others who believed the boys were innocent and may even have had information simply didn't come forward out of fear, she says.
For Salaam, it was getting to work helping other kids like Yusef that pulled her from the "bottomless pit." Not long after Yusef's conviction, Sharonne and some of her core supporters founded People United for Children, which works to improve conditions for incarcerated children and minors who are stuck in other parts of the system.
"I remember this woman came to me and gave me a $5 bill and said, 'I am going to give you money from my check each week.' " Salaam says it was a sign that she should go ahead.
But they do all have physical signs of the stress. On a recent evening when all of the mothers were to meet for an interview, Grace Cuffee was in an emergency room with complications from high blood pressure and diabetes. Wise almost didn't come, but later turned up, saying she had been "pinned to the couch for a week" since the D.A.'s office had been given an extension for the reinvestigation. Salaam's whole family suffers migraines.
Salaam and Cuffee both say they are hoping that ultimately the convictions will be overturned and that the young men's criminal records will be expunged. Salaam says it is crucial that all fingerprints, photos, and DNA be removed from police and FBI files and that Yusef's name be removed from the New York sexual predator database. Try getting and keeping a job when you are labeled a sexual predator, she says. Beyond that, Salaam feels she is still helping her son readjust from what she calls the "different" mentality of prison.
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