On Friday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed legislation that paves the way for posthumous pardons of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women. For nearly a decade, my father used his New York Age column to remind his readers of what he called a travesty of justice.
“We cannot take back what happened. But we can make it right moving forward. That’s why I’m signing this legislation,” Bentley said on Friday. “It’s important to clear the names of the Scottsboro Boys.”
Ebenezer would say it’s about time.
I’m glad it didn’t take 8more than 80 years to clear the young men who served 7 – 13 years for the rape of Trisha Meili, better known as the Central Park jogger. Still, these young men have not been afforded the full measure of justice.
On April 19, 1989, Meili was brutally raped and beaten nearly to death in the park by Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer.
It just happened to be on a night when a couple of dozen teenagers ran through the park, some assaulting, robbing and harassing people.
Ken Burns chronicles the case in his latest documentary, The Central Park Five, which premiered on PBS last week. . In the film, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise admit that they were in the park that night and witnessed some bad behavior. But none of them knew anything about a rape until New York City police, determined to wrap up the case, force fed them details and manipulated them into confessing.
The documentary is heartbreaking. Police ignored or neglected the fact that there was no physical evidence that implicated any of the boys. They ignored the fact that the boys’ “confessions” were not only inconsistent with the facts that law enforcement knew, but also with each others stories. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is watching the prosecutor take a videotaped confession from Wise, the oldest of the five, who was 16. She read him his Miranda rights, told him he had a right to a lawyer, a right to remain silent. But Wise was exhausted after hours and hours of intimidation, interrogation and promises that he would soon be allowed to go home, tells a made-up story implicating himself and his acquaintances.
“If this had happened in 1901, they would have been lynched, perhaps castrated and their bodies burned and that would have been the end of it,” Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, said in the documentary.
“But this was New York City, 1989, , said LynNell Hancock, now a journalism professor at Columbia University. “It was not Jim Crow South, and yet the same words are being used with the same damaging results.”
I remember tearing up when I picked up the New York Times in 2002 and read that the whole thing had indeed been a lie. Reyes, who by then was in prison for other crimes, confessed to the rape of Meile. His DNA was in the police files all along. It was the only DNA on Meile’s belongings. The worst part: While officials were railroading the boys, Reyes continued to rape and murder women.
With his confession, the convictions of the five were vacated by a New York State Supreme Court judge. The City of New York, however, has refused to admit any wrongdoing. A civil suit filed on behalf of the young men in 2003 has yet to be resolved.
No amount of money will give these men back their youth, bu eas Alabama Gov. Bentley said, New York City cannot “take back what happened,” but the city can and should make it right.