If North Carolina leaders are serious about addressing racism in the criminal justice system, they should start by putting themselves in the shoes of the accused.
That was the advice this week from Yusef Salaam, who served almost seven years in prison for a rape and assault he didn’t commit.
“If we can look at somebody as a human being, it changes the dynamic and speaks to them really in a different way,” he said. “That’s the basic and most easiest thing that can be done.”
Salaam spoke at Duke Law School this week along with Raymond Santana, both formerly referred to as part of the “Central Park five,” and now referred to as the “exonerated five.” Their stories of surviving the injustice of the criminal justice system were featured in a 2012 Ken Burns documentary and a Netflix miniseries directed by Ava DuVernay called “When They See Us” that was released this year.
Salaam, Santana, Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson and Kevin Wise were teenagers when they were arrested in 1989 in connection with the attack of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old jogger was brutally assaulted and raped in New York’s Central Park.
They were railroaded by the police and depicted as monsters by the media. They spoke to Duke Law students about how racial bias tainted their case and about the flaws in the system that led to their false confessions, including police coercion and the vulnerability and pressure of being juveniles in interrogations.
“That playing field was uneven going on,” said Santana, who gets asked a lot how he could have confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. “It sets the stage for a false confession to take place.”
Santana was 15 years old when he was interrogated for hours by police about Meili’s attack. He said he didn’t know what Miranda rights were, and the good cop/bad cop tactic detectives used created a pressure that forced him to agree to facts he didn’t even know about.
The teenagers didn’t even write their own confessions – they signed a document written formally by police.
“The injustice here is that we thought people would see that, that society as a whole would be like, ‘wait a minute, something doesn’t make sense,” Santana said. “But they didn’t.”
The men were exonerated in 2002 through DNA evidence. They won a civil rights settlement years later against New York.
“We know that we have a service to fill, a duty,” Santana said.
They still deal with the trauma, he added, and there isn’t a day that goes by that they don’t think about what happened to them, but part of healing is sharing their experience.
Salaam said he wouldn’t change what happened because it made them into the men they were supposed to be.
“It is in those dark times that we find strength,” he said.
Their visit to Duke was particularly poignant since the North Carolina Supreme Court considered a handful of death penalty cases the week before in which the defendants proved racial injustice played a part in their sentencing.
Santana and Salaam encouraged the room full of Duke legal hopefuls to just do their job when they eventually take their places in the criminal justice system. They told them not to cheat or cut corners to get to a bottom line – that’s how mistakes happen.
At the same gathering, officials announced the creation of a new center based at Duke Law School that will apply legal and scientific research to reforming the criminal justice system.
The Duke Center for Science and Justice will be led by Brandon Garrett, the L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law and a leading scholar of criminal procedure, scientific evidence and wrongful convictions. He also represented Salaam when he was a new lawyer, and he helped with the lawsuits that the Exonerated Five filed against New York City after their convictions were overturned.
Kerry Abrams, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and Professor of Law (and Garrett’s wife), made the announcement about the new center, which is supported by a $4.7 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.
“There couldn’t be a better place to host a major center for the study of the role of science in the criminal justice reform system,” she said. “This center will build on our existing strengths to create new opportunities for students and faculty across the university to study and improve accuracy of evidence in criminal cases, the role of risk in criminal outcomes and the treatment needs of individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems as an alternative to arrest and incarceration.”
She said the Center will allow Duke to extend its reach beyond the law school to collaborate with faculty and students in medicine, public policy and arts and science.
Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.