Raymond Santana Campus Event Commentary

On November 14th I attended a talk by Raymond Santana, a member of the Exonerated Five who was infamously falsely convicted of raping a woman jogging in Central Park in 1989. At the time Santana was 14 years old. The police were bent on blaming someone for the crime, so they accused a group of black and latino teenagers and interrogated five of them, including Santana, for hours without a parent present. The police also used the Reid method, a psychologically manipulative interrogation technique that is now frowned upon for its high rate of eliciting false confessions. After hours of being worn down and scared into confessing, Santana admitted that he committed the crime, and spent the next six years of his life in a juvenile detention center. In 2002, new evidence surfaced suggesting that Matias Reyes, a serial rapist already in jail for several other assaults, was responsible for the rape, and DNA evidence corroborated this discovery. The Central Park Five were exonerated on account of this evidence, but after serving years in prison as young adults on false charges, the damage was already done. 

What struck me most about Santana was his resiliency and determination to utilize the horrible situation he endured as a child to raise awareness for the issue of false imprisonment and advocate for justice for others. Despite being wronged by the system- particularly the police officers who manipulated him into confessing and the media who slandered his reputation- Sanatana does not harbor resentment. I was particularly impressed by how he demonstrated such empathy toward the victim of the crime, who never apologized to the five men for her involvement in the false conviction. Santana said that he does not hold her responsible or feel any ill-will toward her because she was the victim of a horrible crime and was not culpable for their treatment and situation. I doubt that I would have had a similar grace had I been in the situation as Santana, who chose to forgive and advocate for others instead of lashing out.

I think that one of the most powerful aspects of Santana’s talk was that it forced me to examine my own unconscious biases and analyze how this prejudice manifests itself in the law and our justice system. For example, prior to this talk I referred to Santana as a member of the “Central Park Five” as opposed to the “Exonerated Five,” when explaining the event to friends. After listening to his talk, I was more conscious of the implication of guilt the title “Central Park Five” carries, and will make sure to refer to the group as the “Exonerated Five” in the future.

I recently started watching the new Netflix series “When They See Us” and I was blown away by how the visual accompaniment of the show enhanced my sympathy for Santana and the other four victims. While listening to Santana speak, I processed the fact that he was 14 at the time of the rape, but I did not fully process the alarming nature of this detail, because he was speaking from the perspective of a middle aged man. When I watched the show I realized that the five boys were just children, and viewing law enforcement assault them to coerce a confession was really difficult. I also appreciated how the producers of the show focused on the dynamics between the parents of the accused boys and the legal system, because I originally could not understand how a parent would allow their child to be questioned without an adult present. After watching the show I understood why some parents even encouraged their sons to confess after being abused by law enforcement themselves and wanting to minimize any further trauma their sons had to go through. The show also challenged me to alter my view of the justice system, which I, as a white person living in suburbia, have always viewed as a dependable source of protection and due process. I would encourage anyone interested in the story of the Exonerated Five to watch the series because it allows the viewer to form a strong emotional connection with the victims and empathize with a view of law enforcement and the legal system that may be much different than one’s own.