Marked as the Enemy

Central Park Five Members Speak

Kevin Richardson is guarded but hopeful as he sits down with a reporter from The Village Voice. He is among the young men dubbed the "Central Park Five," a moniker that evokes a connection to the political trials of the black liberation movement, a far cry from the beastly and lasting labels with which he was plastered in 1989. The emotional scars from that time bear heavily on his relationship to the press. He has only recently begun to read stories other than the sports section.

"This is like my first interview and I'm really reluctant," says Richardson, now 28. "I really don't trust reporters at all. It's taken me a while to really get used to people. I want to reach out to supporters I think are true and will really give the right word out because we've been tricked so much."

Thirteen years ago, it was the media that initially clued Richardson to the enormity of his situation. "When we [were arrested], we didn't know how big this was," says Richardson. "We didn't realize it until we went from precinct to precinct and we had to walk outside. There were all of these lights outside. Media frenzy. I was like, what is going on? We still didn't know, and our families didn't know yet, but they [the press] did."

Since then, despite their steadfast declarations of innocence and contentions that their "confessions" were coerced, life for the Central Park Five and their families has often been an extension of that first "perp" walk. Earlier this year, when they learned—once more through the media—of Matias Reyes's confession to being the sole attacker of the Central Park jogger, and the DNA evidence linking him to the crime, the bright lights of cameras came on all over again.

"It's hard to deal with it again, even though this is for a whole different case," Richardson says. "I still get a little uptight. It seems like every time they show us [in the press], it's the confession tapes, that's it. Sometimes [even if] that's not what the article's about, they'll show that. In the back of my mind, you know, it's like, I did time for something that I didn't do, and it happened so long ago that I was adjusting to society. But at the same time, every day I was thinking about what I went through, and that I'm still convicted, a convicted rapist. It's hard," Richardson says. He reports he finds it extremely difficult to look at the tapes. He cannot reconcile the youth in those sensationalized sound bites with the boy he was or the man he has become.

"It has opened some old wounds," says Yusef Salaam, another of the convicted young men, now 29. "In the back of your mind, you're saying, 'I kind of wish that this was all over and I can just get on with my life.' But at the same time you're looking at the situation and saying, 'This is a really good thing because now I have a chance and an opportunity that a lot of people don't have.' There's many people that I've met in prison that have said that they were innocent, but a lot of people don't have the chance where someone is coming forth and saying, 'Yo, these guys actually are innocent because I did it.' "

In 1997, when Salaam and Richardson came out of prison, they were released to a new set of difficulties. "I was just so scared," says Richardson. "I was happy to be home, but I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how people were going to embrace me. I knew the community was there for me, but I really didn't know what to expect." Apart from his family, Richardson was not always sure of who really had his back. "There's a lot of people that were a little phony. When I walked down the street, you never knew who was your real friend. You walk away, they may talk behind your back—'That's that guy who did that rape.' "

Salaam relates a similar experience of fear. "You always have that in the back of your mind," he says. "That you were in prison, and you kind of fear that because you got put into prison for something that you didn't do that it could happen again."

Longtime adviser and family spokesperson City Councilman Bill Perkins says others in the group have also had this distrust in their readjustment. One of them exhibits a paranoia of sorts due to the crisis he has faced. "There was a recent incident in the neighborhood concerning a rape," says Perkins. "And he was scared that he would be the one blamed."

The 12 years between their convictions and Reyes's revelations have been, in Salaam's words, "a nightmare." "You wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. I know people who do crime, they need to do the time, but if someone is innocent, this is not something that you would want them to go through at all. There were times when I really thought I wasn't coming home. Something could be going on in the yard, somebody might be getting knifed, or something like that. You're kind of like looking around saying, 'Are they just having a distraction going on over there so they can get me?' People really want to hurt you because they think that you did a heinous crime.

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