Texas Tech University

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Lucy Greenberg

February 14, 2022

Once part of the Central Park Five, Kevin Richardson, who is now exonerated, will speak at Texas Tech for the African American Lecture Series as part of Black History Month.

Kevin Richardson was a carefree 14-year-old growing up in New York City. He had a loving family, great friends and excelled at playing the trumpet. 

But his childhood disappeared on the evening of April 19, 1989.  

Known as the Central Park Five, Richardson along with Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white female jogger, Trisha Meili, in a case that captivated the nation. 

The case was highly scrutinized due to police-coerced confessions collected during interrogations of the minors, where no lawyers or parents were present. Additionally, there was a complete lack of DNA evidence tying the five teens to the crime scene. What's more, evidence pointed to an unknown suspect at the scene, but no alternative theories were pursued.  

While most of the youth were sent to juvenile detention centers, Wise, who was 16 at the time, was tried as an adult and sent to Rikers Correctional Center, where he suffered considerable violence.  

The Black and Latino teens were served sentences ranging from seven to 13 years.  

While Richardson and a few others were released during the 1990s, some were incarcerated until 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to Meili's attack.  

Netflix Documentary

The Central Park Five became the Exonerated Five.  

Twenty years later, the world is rediscovering their story through the Emmy award-winning Netflix drama “When They See Us,” directed by Ava DuVernay.  

But sharing their story didn't stop there.  

Richardson and the others are now engaged in social justice work as writers, public speakers and advocates.  

Richardson will speak at Texas Tech University as part of the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion's African American Lecture Series to celebrate Black History Month. The event will be at 7 p.m. on Tuesday (Feb. 15) in the School of Law's Lanier Auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public and will also be available virtually via Zoom

In preparation for the event, Richardson answered questions about his work with The Innocence Project and how the Texas Tech community can play their part in this fight.  

What about the legal system has changed since your arrest in 1989? What hasn't changed? 

There have been a lot of technological advances since 1989. We now have technology that can process more DNA evidence and process it quicker. We're seeing many people exonerated for crimes they did not commit thanks to this science.   

Another big change has been the media. In the 1980s, the only information out there was television or newspapers. Today, with the rise of social media and owned media, there are more voices to consider. Knowledge is more public than it's ever been.  

Unfortunately, there are things that haven't changed since 1989. It's really sad that we're still stuck on these same problems in 2022. Yes, technology has advanced, but justice has not. I think we know why people of color are treated differently in the legal system, but at the same time, we still have a lot of questions on what else is contributing to this problem. At the end of the day, though, people of color are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of a crime they didn't commit, and that has not changed in the last 33 years.   

What are the steps we need to take to change that?  

It's not enough to have a seat at the table; we must learn to break bread together. Those are two different things. When people of all backgrounds occupy spaces in the legal system, law enforcement, social work and so forth, we'll have more accountability when injustices arise. But until that happens, it's going to be the same thing. The systems we have right now aren't working, and we have to rebuild them to work for everyone.  

How did you survive your time in prison? How did you cope after being released?  

To be frank, I don't think many people would survive what we went through. Obviously, we have emotional and mental scars that will last us a lifetime, but just the fact that we're alive and physically in one piece is a miracle. Most people who go through that, end up six feet under.  

For me, a big thing that got me through was my faith. And I know everyone has their own outlook on that, and that's fine, but for me, that's how I survived it. I had to have hope. There had to be a light at the end of my tunnel and, for me, that was God.  

Being released was another thing. It's hard to reenter a society that left you behind.  

Many people don't realize I was released from prison five years before we were exonerated. That meant I had to register as a sex offender, and I was on parole during that time.  

Even though I knew I was innocent, being an inmate is a stigma that sticks with you forever. When someone hears you've been in prison, they don't ask clarifying questions. They just assume the worst about you.  

I will say that for the five of us, family was huge. Luckily, we had family who loved us and supported us when we transitioned back into normal life. But it took time. It still takes time. One of the reasons I love being a public speaker is because it's therapeutic for me. Every time I share my story, I heal a little more.  

You'll be lecturing at the Texas Tech School of Law. How can law students and lawyers help bring reform to wrongful incarcerations?  

I would say two things. First, embrace diversity. Get as many kinds of people on your staff or in your law firm as you can. You'll be serving all kinds of people, so your team should also include all kinds of people.  

Second, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. During our trial, it was clear some of our lawyers weren't all-in. If you're going to be in this line of work, you've got to be passionate about helping people. Their lives are on the line, and that's a big responsibility. The system needs more lawyers and prosecutors who are passionate about justice, not just winning.  

What about other populations on campus? Not everyone's a lawyer, but what can students and faculty from other disciplines do to help?  

Not everyone needs to be an activist, but everyone needs to be active. A lot of people hear stories like mine and try to take on the whole system, which isn't very realistic.  

However, everyone can do something. I encourage people to just start in their community. Attend local city meetings and write to your judges and elected officials. But more than anything, listen. Listen to the stories of others and try to understand other perspectives. If you're a good writer, write something. If you're an artist, create. We all have a part, but no one is going to solve this problem on their own.  

Also, keep having programs like the one I'm coming to. Keep bringing in people and elevating voices on campus that are different than your own.  

What are some projects you're working on right now? 

I work closely with the Innocence Project, which is a nonprofit that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. One thing we're working on right now is passing a law in New York that would make it mandatory to video record any interrogation of a minor.  

A lot of people think this is already a law, but it's not, and that surprises most people. In fact, it was just 2018 that New York passed a law requiring that interrogations in general be recorded– whether for minors or adults. Up until that time, there was no accountability for what happened in those interrogation rooms. And this is just New York; most states haven't even passed that law, let alone laws for minors.  

Another development is with Syracuse University. Starting this fall, the university will be offering an endowed scholarship in my name to students of color who are of high academic standing and are pursuing a career in social work.  

You've taken a horrific experience and turned it into a way to impact millions of people. But if you could go back and prevent all of this from happening, would you?  

That's a question I think about all the time. It's tricky. I would really like to have experienced the rest of my youth. You know, I went into prison at 14 and came out when I was 23. I missed so much. Whether that was going to prom or graduating with my friends – I can't get that back.  

However, I truly believe that what I went through molded me into the man I am now. I have a blessed life. I am married with two daughters, and I have a platform that allows me to touch many lives. There will always be a sense of injustice for what was done to me, but I try to focus on bringing people together. I already experienced enough hate and division, so now, it's about remembering to love.  

For more information on Richardson's lecture, visit the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion's Black History Month website. To learn more about Texas Tech's Innocence Clinic you can visit its website here. To get involved with the Innocence Project of Texas, follow this link.