WASHINGTON: Five men wrongfully convicted for the 1989 rape of a New York jogger accused Donald Trump on Friday of putting "a bounty on our heads”, as a Netflix documentary sheds renewed light on their ordeal. The Central Park Five case saw a group of teens, four black and one Hispanic aged 14 to 16, falsely accused of nearly killing a young white woman. It dominated headlines 30 years ago, sharply exposing fraught race relations in the US city.
President Trump, a real estate mogul at the time, amplified public outrage by paying for full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty.
"When Donald Trump took out that full page ad in New York City newspapers calling for our execution, he placed a bounty on our heads," said one of the men, Yusef Salaam. The names, phone numbers and addresses of the accused were also published by newspapers at the time, he said.
"If you could imagine the horror of that, it was almost as if they were trying to get someone from the darkest enclaves of society to come into our homes, drag us from our beds and hang us from the trees of Central Park." Despite dramatic holes in the case against them and no DNA match from the crime scene, all five were convicted. They spent between six and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he alone had attacked 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili.
But all five had already served their jail terms. "We were just babies. The system ran over us," said Salaam, speaking Friday at an American Civil Liberties Union event in Los Angeles honoring the five men.
The story of the case is the subject of a new Netflix drama When They See Us, directed by Selma film-maker Ava DuVernay.
It depicts how the five teenagers were picked up during a police sweep of the area and interrogated at length, often without the presence of an attorney or a parent. Meili, who was ambushed during a night run and left for dead in the park, gradually recovered but had no memory of the attack, leaving police and prosecutors under intense pressure to find the assailants.
The case was a crucible for tensions and fears at a time when race relations were strained, a crack cocaine epidemic ravaged poor communities, violent crime was rampant and the gulf between rich and poor gaped wide.
The Netflix series has been praised by critics and has reignited debate over the case, particularly among those too young to remember the case. Actor Joshua Jackson, who portrays one of the boys' lawyers in the show, said their treatment by the police, media and public was a "scab that needs to be picked at" in the age of Trump.
"One can't call for the murder of children and ever be forgiven for that. It's a beyond the pale egregious thing for him to have done," he said. "I don't think there's any of the details of this case that would be particularly – unfortunately – shocking if you heard about them happening right now," Jackson added.
In 2014, following a long legal battle, the so-called Central Park Five received a $41 million compensation settlement for their time behind bars. "We were boys when we were sent to prison and we were men when we came out," said Salaam. "We had to struggle to break the label that the media gave us." He added, "I'm one of the Exonerated Five."
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