On November 14th I attended a talk by Raymond Santana, a member of the Exonerated Five who was infamously falsely convicted of raping a woman jogging in Central Park in 1989. At the time Santana was 14 years old. The police were bent on blaming someone for the crime, so they accused a group of black and latino teenagers and interrogated five of them, including Santana, for hours without a parent present. The police also used the Reid method, a psychologically manipulative interrogation technique that is now frowned upon for its high rate of eliciting false confessions. After hours of being worn down and scared into confessing, Santana admitted that he committed the crime, and spent the next six years of his life in a juvenile detention center. In 2002, new evidence surfaced suggesting that Matias Reyes, a serial rapist already in jail for several other assaults, was responsible for the rape, and DNA evidence corroborated this discovery. The Central Park Five were exonerated on account of this evidence, but after serving years in prison as young adults on false charges, the damage was already done.
What struck me most about Santana was his resiliency and determination to utilize the horrible situation he endured as a child to raise awareness for the issue of false imprisonment and advocate for justice for others. Despite being wronged by the system- particularly the police officers who manipulated him into confessing and the media who slandered his reputation- Sanatana does not harbor resentment. I was particularly impressed by how he demonstrated such empathy toward the victim of the crime, who never apologized to the five men for her involvement in the false conviction. Santana said that he does not hold her responsible or feel any ill-will toward her because she was the victim of a horrible crime and was not culpable for their treatment and situation. I doubt that I would have had a similar grace had I been in the situation as Santana, who chose to forgive and advocate for others instead of lashing out.
I think that one of the most powerful aspects of Santana’s talk was that it forced me to examine my own unconscious biases and analyze how this prejudice manifests itself in the law and our justice system. For example, prior to this talk I referred to Santana as a member of the “Central Park Five” as opposed to the “Exonerated Five,” when explaining the event to friends. After listening to his talk, I was more conscious of the implication of guilt the title “Central Park Five” carries, and will make sure to refer to the group as the “Exonerated Five” in the future. I have not watched the Netflix series “When They See Us,” but have heard from friends that it was profoundly moving and provokes self-reflection, so I am looking forward to viewing it, especially after having the privilege of hearing Santana talk in person. I think it’d be a neat idea to watch the series and then write a reflection on the show connecting it to my experience listening to Santana’s speech to include in my Humes portfolio.