In April 1989, New York City police told Raymond Santana he could go home if he admitted to assaulting a jogger in Central Park. The 14-year-old, although innocent, confessed after several hours of interrogation.
Instead of going home, Santana was found guilty of rape and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. With the label of convicted felon, he remained an outcast after being released in his early 20s.
Four other African American and Latino teenagers—altogether forming the Central Park Five—also confessed, were convicted and received prison sentences ranging from five to 13 years.
In 2001, more than a decade after the Central Park Five were convicted, serial rapist Matias Reyes came forward and claimed full responsibility for the highly publicized crime. DNA evidence corroborated Reyes’s account, and the Central Park Five were exonerated. The Central Park Five became the Exonerated Five.
Their fight for justice continued after their release, as Santana and others sued the City of New York in 2003 for malicious prosecution, racial profiling and emotional distress. Eleven years later, the city finally settled with the Exonerated Five for a combined $40 million.
Santana is now an advocate for criminal justice reform, often speaking at universities across the nation and working with The Innocence Project. He will address a sold-out audience tonight at 7 p.m. in Baugh Auditorium as part of the annual History Speaks series.
“His message is going to be very forward-thinking,” said Assistant Dean Gary Jones, who started History Speaks in 2014 and has since brought speakers to Oklahoma Christian University every year. “Where do we go from here, how do we process it and how do we move forward?”
With the release of Netflix’s “When They See Us” historical drama series in May 2019, a wider, younger audience has become familiar with the Central Park Five case. The four-part series follows the lives of those convicted, beginning with their police interrogation in the spring of 1989 and ending with their settlement in 2014. More than 23 million Netflix accounts streamed the series during its first month on the site.
Jones said he had been well aware of the case, but the Netflix series has allowed a greater number of people to learn what exactly happened. “When They See Us” was streamed in Judd Theater this past Thursday and Friday In anticipation of Santana’s arrival on campus.
“One of the things I do is try to find stories that I feel like are important stories as it relates to black history,” Jones said. “This is one of the more recent ones, but I feel like the timing with the Netflix documentary definitely didn’t hurt.”
Jones said he hopes the discussion tonight raises awareness of the fact injustice happened in the past and continues to happen around us today.
“It’s easy to lose sight of the fact when you talk to him that he suffered such a tragic injustice as a kid,” Jones said. “I just look back to when I was 13 or 14 years old, my biggest concern was what I was going to have in the cafeteria today, as opposed to surviving.”
The Oklahoma Christian website describes History Speaks as an annual civil rights lecture with the goal of engaging students and the surrounding community with complex dialogue. Past guests include Andrew Young, Diane Nash and Wheeler Parker Jr.