The "Central Park Five" (The Exonerated Five): Background information when reading Punching the Air

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Punching the Air

by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi

Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi X
Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 400 pages

    Dec 2021, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
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About this Book

The "Central Park Five" (The Exonerated Five)

This article relates to Punching the Air

Print Review

Yusef Salaam speaking in Union Square On the night of April 19, 1989, several dozen teen boys went into New York City's Central Park as a loose group. Early on the morning of April 20, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white investment banker, was found in the park; she had been raped and badly beaten. She remained in a coma for two weeks and retained no memory of the attack.

Amid media outcry over Meili's attack and under pressure to solve the case, the police linked the two events, and soon arrested five of the boys who had been at the park that night: Antron McCray (15), Kevin Richardson (15), Yusef Salaam (15), Raymond Santana (14) and Korey Wise (16). Dubbed the "Central Park Five" by the media, the boys, all Black or Latino, were subjected to hours of intense interrogation, during which they implicated themselves in the attack. According to Salaam, they were held for more than 24 hours without food or sleep. They all later recanted their statements, saying that their confessions had been coerced.

The boys were portrayed by the police and by sensationalized media as being part of a "wolf pack" that had been out "wilding" that night. In actuality, the boys had said that they were "wilin' out," a Black slang phrase that means to hang out or act foolishly.

Tried as adults, the boys were found guilty of charges ranging from robbery and riot to rape and attempted murder, despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, no eyewitness statements and no DNA evidence tying them to the crime. In fact, the only hard evidence — DNA found on the victim — pointed toward a single, unknown assailant. The four youngest boys served six to seven years each; Wise served 13 years.

In 2002, convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the crime after meeting Wise in prison. Newly available advanced DNA technology confirmed that Reyes had committed the crime and that none of the "Central Park Five" had been involved. In December 2002, their convictions were vacated by the New York State Supreme Court. In 2014, the Exonerated Five, as they have come to be known, settled a civil case against the City of New York for $41 million. Despite their exonerations, the original detectives on the case as well as some prominent figures, including Donald Trump, continue to believe that they are guilty.

The case recently received renewed interest as a result of Ava DuVernay's 2019 Netflix miniseries, When They See Us. Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise now work for criminal justice reform. Salaam serves on the board of the Innocence Project, which aids wrongfully convicted people in gaining exoneration through DNA evidence. In 2016 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama. Recently, he co-authored Punching the Air, a novel in verse, with Ibi Zoboi.

Yusef Salaam speaking at a rally for Troy Davis in New York City's Union Square in 2009, by Thomas Good / NLN (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Lisa Bintrim

This "beyond the book article" relates to Punching the Air. It originally ran in October 2020 and has been updated for the December 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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