Jan. 27, 2023 — Dr. Yusef Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five shared his experience of being wrongfully convicted and ideas for improving the criminal justice system with attendees at the University of Houston’s 2023 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 25.
After Salaam’s keynote address, he engaged in a conversational interview with Sandra Guerra Thompson, Newell H. Blakely Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center and Auyanna Aird, President of the University of Houston Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.
“Back in 1989, I couldn’t have imagined that someday I would be interviewing Yusef Salaam,” said Thompson, sharing with audience that in 1989 she “was a baby prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.”
Salaam, a prison reform activist and motivational speaker, was 15 years old when he and four other Black and Latinx teenage boys were falsely imprisoned for the rape and brutal assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989.
Assigned to the appellate division, Thompson mostly wrote briefs and did not practice in the trial courts. However, at the time, one of her officemates shared the news that he was helping with the high-profile Central Park Jogger case.
“I would never forget the chilling feeling we had when he told us that, after viewing the video footage of the boys’ interrogations, he believed any kid of that age would have said whatever the police wanted so they could just go home.”
At the time, the boys were demonized in the media and became infamously known as the Central Park Five. The group had their sentences overturned in 2002 after a convicted murder and serial rapist confessed to the crime.
“I remember the horror when I heard that they were actually innocent,” said Thompson.
Thompson shared how her association with the District Attorney’s Office and the Central Park Jogger case have influenced her teaching.
“I have always taken my students to tour a maximum-security prison because I was so affected by the tour of Rikers Island, the New York City jail, that I took as a prosecutor. I also turned my attention to wrongful convictions, both teaching and writing about the subject,” said Thompson.
Today, the men – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise – are known as the Exonerated Five. In 2019, filmmaker Ava DuVernay adapted their story into a miniseries “When They See Us,” which was shown on campus this week as part of the commemoration events sponsored by the UH Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
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