‘Not bitter, but better’: Two members of The Exonerated Five speak at UND

Their convictions vacated and records cleared, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana asked listeners to support criminal justice reform

Yusef Salaam (left) and Raymond Santana (center) take the stage at the Chester Fritz Auditorium to talk about their experiences as members of The Exonerated Five, formerly known as the Central Park Five. Moderating the conversation was UND Assistant Professor Tamba-Kuii Bailey (right). Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Arrested on charges that would later be overturned; imprisoned for nearly seven years for a rape conviction that would later be vacated; made a figure of worldwide infamy while the real rapist — as DNA evidence later would confirm — roamed free; Yusef Salaam had every reason to be filled with hate.

Instead, here’s how Salaam described his goal, thinking back to when he was imprisoned in the 1980s and 90s:

Emerge “not bitter, but better.”

“We were fighting to do time, and not let time do us,” said Salaam, speaking to about 500 people who’d gathered in the Chester Fritz Auditorium to hear his story.

“We were fighting to visualize ourselves coming out of there one day not bitter, but better. … I would get these letters from my grandmother; they were addressed to Master Yusef Salaam. It was her reminder to me that I was the master of my fate, that I could choose to be better.”

Salaam and Raymond Santana spoke on the UND campus as members of the Exonerated Five, formerly known as the Central Park Five. The five — four African Americans and one Hispanic American — were a group of teenagers who were convicted of the April 19, 1989 rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman, in New York’s Central Park.

The defendants served 6 to 13 years, but continued to proclaim their innocence while in prison and after being released. Then in 2001, a convicted murderer and serial rapist named Matias Reyes confessed that he’d raped the female jogger and said he’d acted alone.

Reyes’ DNA matched that found at the scene. This led to the state withdrawing all charges against the Five and vacating their convictions.

Today, Salaam and Santana are advocates of prison and sentencing reform, especially in regards to police practices that can lead to false confessions and eyewitness misidentifications. They’re also active in the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

So far, some 367 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 21 who’d been on death row, the project reports.

Some 500 people attended the conversation at the Chester Fritz Auditorium with two members of The Exonerated Five. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

‘A naive kid’

Back in 1989, 14-year-old Raymond Santana was “a naive kid,” Santana said Wednesday.

“He loves hip-hop, that kid,” he said. “He loves wearing a certain type of clothing because the girls in his class said he looked cute in it. That was Raymond.”

In a similar way, Salaam said, “I had a skateboard. You know, my aspiration back then was probably to nail that ollie (a skateboarding trick) when I got home. … And aside from that, it was really about looking forward to coming home from school and hanging out with friends.”

But fate had other plans, as the Central Park rape case tore through the teens’ lives like an EF5 tornado, wreaking havoc that lasted for decades and effects that linger to this day.

“And I just have to say that we were convicted based on the color of our skin,” Salaam said. “All the other stuff was just to seal the deal. Dr. King said that we should judge people based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But when you look at the way that the system has victimized people in America, sending people who have been marginalized to prison has become as American as apple pie.”

Santana agreed. “Within the first few weeks of this case, there were 400 articles written about us,” he said.

The stories “put us in this light so that we looked like animals — and that’s how it continued, 24/7 for 2 1/2 years. … There were demands from people who said we should be castrated, who sent death threats, who called my house so often that my dad couldn’t answer the phone.

“Then there’s the element of going into a detention center, where a staff member says, ‘The whole jail wants to hurt you.’”

Again, given the force of that buffeting, it would have been easy for teens in those circumstances to fall into vengefulness or fanaticism. So, asked UND assistant professor Tamba-Kuii Bailey, who moderated the conversation at the Fritz: why didn’t that happen?

“What was it that helped you develop into men?” Bailey asked.

“Today, we’re using our story for a higher purpose,” said Yusef Salaam, one of two members of The Exonerated Five who spoke on March 4 on the UND campus. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

From inmates to graduates

“For me,” answered Santana, “it was education.” That started with a GED and continued with college.

“So there I was in my first semester, and I was on academic probation. Now who goes to prison and goes to college and gets put on academic probation? That was me,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

“Well, I didn’t want to be the first person to get kicked out of college in prison. I didn’t want that distinction.” Santana started taking his studies seriously, and with the help of some key professors, he made it through. “So for me it was education, 100 percent.”

In Salaam’s case, poetry helped. “For example, here is a poem that I wrote in prison:

“Prison life in many ways can be likened to the womb.

“If the life inside becomes stillborn, the womb becomes a tomb.”

Armed with that determination, Salaam, too, pursued an education while in prison. “And today, we’re using our story for a higher purpose, telling people that we got college degrees. We’re saying that not to impress anyone, but rather, to impress upon everyone that if we were in a place where we were physically in bondage and yet made something of ourselves, then people who are physically free can do anything.”

In 2002, the convictions of Santana, Salaam and the other three members of the Central Park Five were vacated. But that news was “whispered” in comparison with the trumpets that had blared their convictions, Salaam said.

It wasn’t until Ken Burns and his daughter, Sarah, released a documentary on the case in 2012 that attention started to return, this time in a more sympathetic way. “That’s when things started to shift,” Santana said. “Even before the documentary, there had been pushback. Ken Burns had certain people whom he went to for funding, and some of them didn’t want to fund this film.”

But after the documentary’s release, “everything changed,” he said. “Today, 99 percent of the people who walk up to us in New York City say, ‘I’m sorry. … I believed the narrative. I thought you guys were guilty. Now, I see that you’re innocent and have been for all this time.’

“It creates a conversation and makes people want to step up and do more.”

Moderating the conversation with the two members of The Exonerated Five was Tamba-Kuii Bailey (right), assistant professor in the Department of Education, Health and Behavior Studies at UND. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Occupy the spaces

That’s the feeling Salaam and Santana came to UND to encourage.

“You know, people think that when The Exonerated Five come to talk, we’re going to tell you, ‘Don’t be a police officer. Don’t be a district attorney,’” Santana said.

“That’s false. We’re going to tell you to occupy all of those spaces, because if you believe in change, that’s where it has to happen. You have to be strategic and think long-term.”

Salaam agreed. “The challenges will come, but never forget the words of the great philosopher: Cardi B,” he said, to laughter.

“She said, ‘Fall down nine times, get up 10.’ That should be our mantra in life. … You know, the true fight has never been a black-and-white fight. It’s never been on racial terms. When we speak in front of people, we’re always talking in front of the kaleidoscope of the human family.

“So we need folks to understand that as we move into the future together, symbolically and in the reality of what Dr. King said, we’ll walk hand-in-hand. For we have known that the true fight has always been battling spiritual wickedness in high places. That’s where the true fight’s at.”