On July 25th, Steven Lopez, a previously under-the-radar sixth co-defendant of the Central Park Five, was exonerated of a related conviction by the New York State Supreme Court. The Central Park Five were a group of Black and Latino teenagers who received national attention after being falsely imprisoned for the rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, a white woman, in 1989. Lopez’s trial didn’t receive much notice at the time because Lopez pled guilty to robbing a male jogger as part of a plea bargain to avoid charges for the attack on Meili. Now, Lopez has finally become the last of the group to receive exoneration, bringing some justice to a victim of racial profiling, false accusations, and wrongful imprisonment.
After arresting Steven Lopez, police stuck the 15-year-old boy in a holding cell for 20 hours before starting questioning. Nearly two and a half hours later, a detective forced Lopez and his father (who was not a native English speaker and was not given a translator) to sign a statement placing Lopez at the scene of the attack on the male jogger. This occurred despite a complete lack of any forensic evidence tying Lopez to the attack; in fact, the male jogger didn’t even identify Lopez as one of his assailants. Lopez was forced to sign this statement solely because of police intimidation, and these tactics were repeated with each boy in the group.
Collectively, the Central Park Five served close to 45 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
The five boys other than Lopez were exonerated in February 2002, when DNA evidence linked the true attacker to the crime. 20 years later, Lopez joins them in having his innocence recognized at last.
“I’m just really happy for Mr. Lopez today… I couldn’t imagine having gone through this, and I think he’s tremendously strong for having endured it,” commented Lopez’s lawyer, Eric S. Renfroe.
Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, two of the other Central Park Five, also applauded Lopez’s exoneration. “It’s only right that he’s exonerated… He’s due that,” said Santana, who was only 14 years old when the six boys were unjustly arrested.
Since their arrest in 1989 and exoneration in 2002, the Central Park Five have been an infamous example of how the American justice system regularly oppresses Black and brown people. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, over 3,175 people have been wrongfully convicted since 1989, the year that Lopez and the other boys were falsely arrested. Additionally, Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people. It shouldn’t be surprising that the most prominent case of this type of persecution involves yet another victim of injustice. These issues are woven deep into the justice system and won’t be resolved without significant reform or the creation of a new system altogether.
While Lopez’s guilty verdict has been erased at last, the trauma he suffered as an innocent man in prison remains. According to an N.B.C. interview with psychologist Joanne Frederick, exonerees show “increased anxiety and depression from first being accused of something they did not do [and then] being convicted in court, which is trauma… Then they go through the prison system, which is another level of trauma. And then they are proven innocent, exonerated, and there’s more trauma because suddenly they are lost, searching where to fit in the world.”
While Lopez’s exoneration undoubtedly comes as a relief to him and his family, the harm the justice system did to Lopez and his Central Park Five counterparts can never be undone. That’s why American criminal justice must be reformed or replaced with a system that doesn’t allow this everlasting abuse to occur. It’s time to end the U.S.’s system of oppression and save exonerees’ lives, before they become exonerees in the first place.
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