Long before Donald Trump was president or Twitter existed, the real-estate developer was already loudly interfering in public affairs. One of the most notable of these instances had life-altering consequences on a group of young men known as the Central Park Five. The story continues to resonate today; it was announced on July 6 that director Ava DuVernay is tackling the story for a Netflix miniseries. In light of the news, we’re taking a look back at the true story of the divisive case and the role Trump played in the national news story.
On the night of April 20, 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was out jogging in New York’s Central Park when she was savagely attacked, beaten, raped, and left for dead. She was found with such severe injuries that doctors doubted she would survive. Although Meili eventually recovered, she had no memory of the attack.
Five teenagers were arrested for the crime: Kharey Wise, 16, Antron McCray, 15, Kevin Richardson, 14, Raymond Santana, 14, and Yusef Salaam, 15. The victim was white, and the young men — who became known as the Central Park Five — were all either black or Latino. Each of them confessed to the crime after hours of aggressive interrogation, then later recanted their statements. They ultimately served between six and 13 years in prison each.
In 2002, a convicted serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes — who was already serving time in prison — confessed to having assaulted Meili. He said he acted alone, and DNA evidence supported his confession. The Central Park Five were exonerated and later sued the city over their wrongful conviction. They received a settlement of $40 million in 2014.
The horrific crime and ensuing trial drew nationwide attention. Donald Trump, who was already a well-known figure in NYC, repeatedly fanned the flames in an already tense, racially charged time. He paid $85,000 to take out a full-page ad in various newspapers, where he published an open letter calling for the return of the death penalty and expressing his hatred of the “roaming bands of wild criminals” in the city, whom he described as laughing at their victims. “And why do they laugh?” Trump wrote. “They laugh because they know that soon, very soon, they will be returned to the streets to rape and maim and kill once again – and yet face no great personal risk to themselves.”
Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, has expressed how frightened he was at the time over the fact that a prominent public figure like Trump was calling for his death. He believes that Trump’s inflammatory letter was instrumental in turning public opinion against the young men, describing it as the “nail in the coffin.”
It is striking how little Trump’s rhetoric around the case has changed over the years. Ever since he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals, Trump has been painting a bleak, frightening picture of American society and has been fixated on the idea that America is under attack and being taken advantage of by outsiders, be they immigrants, Muslims, refugees, or our allies.
Even more shocking is the fact that Trump has continued to maintain that the Central Park Five were guilty. In 2014, upon learning that the men would be receiving a $40 million settlement, Trump again chose to publicly voice his opinion, penning a letter in the New York Daily News in which he called the settlement a “disgrace” and declared that the men did “not exactly have the past of angels.” In reality, none of the teenagers in the group had ever been arrested before.
In October 2016, in a CNN interview, Trump again stated his conviction that the men were guilty, arguing that they had confessed to the crime and claiming that the evidence pointed to them, despite the DNA evidence that had exonerated the Central Park Five 14 years prior.
Although Trump has denied that his 1989 letter was racially charged, it’s easy to see it as an early avatar of the racist subtext that has characterized so much of his brief political career. Trump’s unshakable conviction of the Central Park Five’s guilt reveals a mindset in which young men of color are guilty even when proven innocent. The crusade he led against these young men and his refusal to admit their innocence even today are stark reminders of Trump’s underlying attitudes toward minorities.