By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
By Albert Samaha
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 learnedonce more through the mediaof 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.
"Sometimes I don't think about this [case]." I have it in my mind but I move on because I just don't think about a lot of the grim facts and the rough times. Even times when, you knowthey say men cry in prison when the lights are offI don't think about those times because if I [did] I might be a guy who goes crazy."
Salaam and Richardson share stories of lost economic opportunities, and the stigma of having to register as sex offenders under Megan's Law, for this now disputed crime.
"I put in for [a job at] the post office," says Richardson. "I told the truth and I put down that I was convicted. I swear I had the job already, but then after that it seemed like they just totally pushed me off. I was qualified and everything and that crushed me for a minute. They never looked at what I could do, at my qualities and what kind of worker I would be, but they knew that I was Kevin Richardson."
And their names were still newsworthy. "When I first came home," says Salaam, "I was actually working for a construction company. At one point, I had wanted to go back to school, and I told my boss. He said OK, 'I'll see you,' and maybe a day or two later an article ran in the Daily News stating that he fired me."
"I've had a lot of difficulties in securing work," says Salaam. "For the most part people usually say, 'Hey, OK, I appreciate you being honest with me. I see that you've served time.' I always put down that I served time for a crime that I didn't commit. And it always shifts to, 'What were you in prison for?' When they find out, I never get the job."
"I'm working now," says Richardson. "In the beginning I was kind of nervous because it was a good job, and I didn't want to lose it. I didn't know what people would think when they knew it was me. I keep my circle of friends real little. Now, I find more people coming to me, and I don't know if they are genuine or not. It's like they want to jump on the bandwagon a little bit. [The case] made me lose friends, and actually, I think it's better that way for me. I'd rather kind of keep to myself and my family."
"I had gotten out on bail [before the trial]" says Salaam. "I remember a black older woman coming up to me around where my mom lives, and she says: 'Why did you do that to that lady in the park?' And I was likeI mean, it was a black womanI just felt so bad. I was like, 'I didn't do it,' you know? And there was nothing I could say to this woman to convince her that I didn't do this crime."
Both Salaam and Richardson credit their families with insuring that they were able to cope with the circumstances to which they were subjected. "They did the time with me because they were always there," says Richardson. "The C.O.s [corrections officers], when they see that, they won't mess with you too much. When you don't have anybody, you can get lost in the system."
Although Salaam had the support of the prison Islamic community and served as the spiritual leader at his youth facility, he agrees that family is the greatest support. "There were times [during visits] when I would look over at my mom and I'm like, man, she looks so tired. I was about five miles from Canada and we lived in New York City. It's a very long trip and she would come three times a week.
"One thing that time does, especially when you come home and you have a family and loved ones, that kind of puts a bandage on the wound so it becomes a little easier to breathe, because you know at least that you have your family and friends in your corner."
According to their accounts, the dilemma has strengthened their spirituality and made them stronger people, although for Richardson it seems impossible to look at the world the way he did before the ordeal.
"When you go before the parole board, you're supposed to show remorse for what you did, but how can I do that if I didn't do anything?" says Richardson.
"I think that especially with crimes like the Central Park jogger case, a lot of cases like that are won and lost in the media before they reach the courtroom, but at the same time, I don't feel as bad as most people would," says Salaam. "I don't point the finger like that. For one thing, I look at it and I say to myself, 'These people are just reporting information that they have gathered from another source and they may have been gathering information from a source that tainted the information."
Richardson and Salaam were both able to obtain associate degreesin liberal arts and applied sciences respectivelywhile in prison. Salaam, now married with two young children, is studying business with plans of starting his own company. Both look forward to the December 5 court date that will decide whether or not, with Reyes's admission and his confirmed DNA link to the jogger attack, any and all tainted information will disappear.
"There are a lot of people that's realizing what's really going on, and they're becoming more aware, and now they're dealing with logic, and if they had really paid attention from the beginning, they would've known," says Richardson. "From the beginning, all we wanted was justice, and we never got the chance," he says. "I want justice to be done. That's my main focus. I don't care about anything else right now."