Justice for the Central Park Five

06/23/2014 12:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2014

There's a part of New York City's history that some would like to forget. For more than a decade, a group of men collectively known as the Central Park Five have been fighting for justice in a civil suit against the City after an investigation overturned their wrongful prison sentences for a crime that captivated NYC and the nation. The brutal rape and attack against a woman running in Central Park occurred in 1989. The five -- who were just teenagers at the time -- were rounded up, interrogated without their parents, vilified by everyone from the media to law enforcement, and prosecuted by overzealous officials eager to 'solve the case'. After coerced confessions, the five Black and Latino boys spent about 40 years in prison (combining their terms) until another man admitted to the crime, and DNA evidence corroborated this man's guilt. Following years of legal battles since their release in 2002, the Central Park Five will finally receive a semblance of justice. And all I can say is, it's about time.

Late last week, it was reported that the five men have agreed to settle for $40 million from the City of New York. While this settlement can never give them back their youth, or replace time that was lost, it will hopefully bring closure to a painful period of their lives, the lives of their loved ones and the City itself. I was there in 1989 when the young boys were demonized and maligned in the press. I remember when terms like 'wilding' and 'wolf pack' were very strategically splashed on the front pages. I remember when Donald Trump took out full-page ads to call for the death penalty to be reinstated in New York. And I was there with other activists and community advocates pushing for a fair trial and for justice for these young boys. We watched firsthand as they dealt with the psychological trauma of the entire ordeal. Years after their release, the Central Park Five are still working to put their lives back together, and it hasn't been an easy road.

Kharey Wise, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, served the longest sentence behind bars -- 13 years. Like the other four, he struggled to immerse himself back into society; gaining employment, building a life for himself and moving away from the stigma of this case has been difficult to say the least. He ended up working for my organization, National Action Network, for several years after his release and I watched him cope with the mental anguish of dealing with such a miscarriage of justice. Kharey was 29 when he became a free man; like the other four young men, an entire chapter of his life was lost. They deserve this settlement, and we must encourage the City Comptroller to sign off on it without delay. After all, it's been 25 years in the making.

The tragedy of the Central Park Case was twofold: first, the brutal attack against the victim, and secondly, the rush to convict five boys in both a court of law and the court of public opinion. They were deemed guilty long before they ever went to trial. As we begin to repay them for the wrongful convictions that robbed them of their prime years, we must reform the system that lands many behind bars for crimes they never committed. According to the Innocence Project, there have been more than 300 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, and about 70 percent of those exonerated by DNA testing are people of color. The average length of time served by exonerees is 13.6 years according to their stats. That is outrageous and unacceptable.

We as a nation incarcerate more people than anywhere else in the world, and as the Innocence Project and other organizations, attorneys and activists have proven, innocents are among them. As we welcome a settlement for the Central Park Five, we must address the issues that landed them in jail without sufficient evidence: police and prosecutorial misconduct, coerced confessions and media messaging that often depicts minorities as thugs or troublemakers. Right now, all across the country, young boys, girls, men and women are facing situations where they too are being interrogated, pressured and forced to confess to crimes they were never involved with. The poor and those with limited means are especially susceptible to wrongful imprisonment because they cannot afford a high-powered attorney that can speak on their behalf. This is not how our system should work.

I remember marching, rallying and working with others to raise bail money for the Central Park Five back in 1989. Twenty-five years after that period, these men can finally begin to re-assemble their lives. People like Donald Trump have the audacity to call this settlement a heist; the only heist was robbing them of their youth. We will not allow him or others to turn this moment of justice into one of the same ugly divisiveness that landed five young boys in prison to begin with. I commend Mayor de Blasio for following through on his campaign promise, and look forward to this settlement being finalized.

As the Central Park Five and their families continue to heal, and as the victim in the case continues to heal, we must renew our resolve to change our judicial system until race, class and money do not predetermine an outcome. We must work to protect all Americans against wrongful imprisonment as we simultaneously combat crime because anything less is an affront to our very notion of freedom and equality. If you don't believe me, just look at five young boys who lost theirs as the world watched.

Let us proclaim loudly: never again.