"Central Park 5" member speaks to sold-out crowd about exoneration, criminal justice issues

MADISON, Wis (WMTV) -- Yusef Salaam, who was part of one of the most wrongful conviction cases in US history, spoke at Madison Area Technical College to educate about racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

He was one of five teenagers from the Central Park jogger case who was found guilty for a brutal rape and beating. This story has become widely publicized after the Netflix series “When They See Us” debuted this year.

It has been nearly 30 years since Salaam was wrongfully convicted and he said he remembers it like it was yesterday.
He served nearly seven years in prison. Today he is using his experience to encourage people to use their power to incite change.

"Here we were 14, 15 and 16-year-old children. They put us in the lion’s den and by them doing that it made us unafraid," Salaam said.

Salaam was just 15 years old when his world was turned upside down and his youth was stolen.

"You are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law," Salaam said.

He and four other teenagers from New York were wrongfully accused in 1990 for the assault and rape of a white investment banker who was jogging in New York Central Park in 1989.

Salaam said he never confessed to the crime and he said from the beginning he didn't do it.

"When they stopped my interview, the DA and the officer who were interrogating me, they said to themselves ‘we have to figure out how to move forward with his story because he didn't make a written or videotape confession,’" Salaam said.

In early 2002, a convicted murderer and rapist admitted he was responsible for the attack. Then, the central park five became the exonerated five.

Salaam said racial disparities in the criminal justice system still linger.

"I think the criminal justice system hasn't improved. I think when it comes to responding to public pressure, they have tokens of justice that looks like progress," he said.

This story hit the big screen in a Netflix mini-series “When They See Us” displaying the harsh reality of what happened, and it sent shock waves throughout the country.

"We have the opportunity now for us to look at the Central Park jogger case and figure out ways to get it right and get the system right," Salaam said.

He explained there's always light in the midst of darkness, and he's choosing to use the light he found to try and prevent future injustice.

"Waking up every day appreciating life, appreciating freedom and the ability to take what you found as your purpose and live it, and I think that's tremendous," he said.

Salaam said this is just the beginning of a conversation that has many layers and he plans to keep educating and speaking about racial disparities within the criminal justice system.