Thursday, February 22

Sixth boy charged in 1989 Central Park jogger case is exonerated

New York judge says Steven Lopez’s guilty plea on charge related to notorious case was involuntary and unconstitutional.

A codefendant of the Central Park Five, a group of Black and Latino teenagers whose convictions in a notorious 1989 rape of a jogger in New York City were thrown out more than a decade later, has had his conviction on a related charge overturned.

A New York judge exonerated Steven Lopez on Monday in response to requests by both Lopez’s lawyer and prosecutors.

Lopez was 15 when he was first named in the indictment along with five other Black and Latino teenagers for the night-time rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, an investment banker whose horrific injuries became the subject of sensationalist media coverage.

Lopez later pleaded guilty to robbing a male jogger that same night in a deal with prosecutors that saw the charges alleging his involvement in the attack on Meili dropped, and was sentenced to between 1-1/2 and 4-1/2 years in a state prison.

Judge Ellen Biben of the New York State Supreme Court on Monday agreed to a motion by Manhattan’s chief prosecutor and a lawyer for Lopez to vacate the plea that Lopez entered at age 17, ruling that it was involuntary, unconstitutional and based in part on false witness statements.

An emotional Steven Lopez covers his face with his right hand.
Lopez was sentenced to between 1-1/2 and 4-1/2 years in a state prison [Steven Hirsch/Pool via Reuters]

“What happened to you was a profound injustice and an American injustice,” Eric Shapiro Lopez, a defence lawyer who was not yet born when his client was indicted, said in remarks to Lopez before the court. “They say justice delayed is justice denied and I’m sorry we’ve had to wait for 30 years.”

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Lopez, whose long beard is now greying, appeared to have tears in his eyes.

Monday’s decision closes another chapter in a case that has become emblematic of judicial overreach in the United States, racial profiling by both law enforcement and news outlets, as well as the malpractice of police officers forcing confessions from innocent people.

Meili was beaten and left for dead. The attack was seized upon by local media as an emblem of soaring crime rates in New York City in the 1980s. News stories frequently referred to the boys arrested by the New York Police Department as animals.

Decades before he would become president, Donald Trump, then a prominent real-estate developer, took out full-page advertisements in city newspapers calling for the boys to be executed.

Later, the five boys’ convictions were overturned in 2002 after evidence linked a convicted serial rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, to the attack. Prosecutors who reviewed the case had concluded the teenagers’ confessions, made after hours of interrogations, were deeply flawed.

“A comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies,” they wrote in court papers at the time. “The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime.”

Steven Lopez embracing his lawyer in court.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told the court that there was no physical evidence linking Lopez to the attacks on either joggers [Steven Hirsch/Pool via Reuters]

Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, now known as the Exonerated Five, brought a lawsuit against the city, which was settled for $41m in 2014.

Lopez was not part of that lawsuit, and his story has often been overlooked in coverage of the exoneration of his former codefendants.

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Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told the court that there was no physical evidence linking Lopez to the attacks on either jogger and that the witness statements naming him had been recanted. That, coupled with Lopez’s youth at the time, made the plea involuntary, Bragg said.

“Mr Lopez, we wish you peace and healing,” the judge said after dismissing the indictment.

“Thank you,” Lopez replied, his only remarks in court.

“It is so ordered,” the judge said, as Lopez rose to shake the chief prosecutor’s hand.

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