By Jill Smolow
December 23, 2002 12:00 PM

At his trial for the rape and assault of the 28-year-old jogger who was nearly beaten to death in Central Park in 1989, Yusef Salaam, then 15, maintained his innocence. In rap form, he declared to the court, “I got used and abused, and even was put on the news.” After he and four other Harlem teens were convicted in the notorious “wilding” incident, Salaam spent 6½ years in New York prisons. Fellow inmates told him to “keep the faith,” but, says Salaam, now 28, “I really didn’t think [this day] would come.” So when he learned on Dec. 5 that the Manhattan district attorney’s office had asked a court to throw out the convictions, Salaam says, “I jumped up and down. I am overjoyed.”

The stunning reversal—which awaits a final ruling on Jan. 6 by a state Supreme Court judge—was the culmination of a controversial 11-month investigation, initiated last January after convicted murderer and rapist Matias Reyes, 31, claimed sole responsibility for the rape. “Our clients have reclaimed their names and their reputations,” says attorney Roger Wareham, who codefended three of the so-called Central Park Five. “What this case represents is a real indictment of the criminal justice system. There is always a double standard when blacks and Latinos are accused of a crime.”

Many of the original prosecutors and investigators fiercely disagree. At the time, they point out, all five men confessed to the attack; additionally, a dismissal of all charges fails to account for the five teens’ alleged presence among the 30-odd youths who rampaged through the park that night terrorizing and attacking others. “It is a terrible miscarriage of justice for the public,” says Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the prosecution of the original case. “I am not asking anyone to take my word for it. There are six people who could testify at a hearing.”

Lead detective Humberto Arroyo, who, like Fairstein, was never contacted during the reopened investigation, says that the word of a convicted murderer “doesn’t exonerate them.” Additionally, he says, the defendants’ original “statement, the interviews, were not coerced” (indeed, the D.A.’s report makes no mention of coercion). Since their initial interrogations, all five men have never wavered from claims that they played no part in the rape. Still, uncertainty lingers. The jogger’s lead doctor, Robert Kurtz, for instance, does not believe Reyes could have acted alone. “Reyes said he only used blunt objects,” he says. “There must have been someone else attacking her using sharp objects.”

For each of the men, most of them the sons of solid working-class parents, that 1989 spring evening divided time. “We wanted our children to be lawyers and doctors and teachers,” says Salaam’s mother, Sharonne. “We wanted for our children what all people want.” Instead, until a judge rules in their favor, their sons have conviction records that bar them from good jobs and they must report to authorities as sexual predators. Then there is the time they lost behind bars, which ranged from six to 11 years, with four of them receiving time off for good behavior. During those years, two of the men lost parents (Raymond Santana Jr.’s mother and Kharey Wise’s father died). “That jail raised my son,” says Delores Wise, a retired mental health worker.

Today three of the five are employed and pursuing studies. Antron McCray, 28, a former star Little League pitcher who is married with three children, works in a factory and plans on college. Kevin Richardson, 28, is a night watchman completing a bachelor’s degree in social services. Salaam, a married father, studies computer science. Wise, 30, who once dreamed of being a policeman, recently left prison. Santana, 28, remains in prison for an unrelated crime; he hopes to counsel kids.

The parents have felt the sting of their sons’ pariah status. “When this happened, my friends turned their backs,” says Santana’s father, Raymond Sr. “This was hell for us.” Sharonne says that every day there were “people looking at us and calling us names and wondering what kind of children we had bore.” How have they endured? “They work. They pray. They go to church. They do what people do to survive,” says New York City councilman Bill Perkins, who once lived in the Harlem housing project where several of the boys lived. In the wake of the D.A.’s report, says McCray’s mother, Linda, who worked in a daycare center, “we don’t have to worry about someone whispering in the corner. To really take a deep breath and breathe, you don’t know how good that feels.”

Still, defense attorneys see work ahead. Wareham is calling for an investigation “that will lead to the identification and punishment of those who were responsible for this miscarriage of justice.” Barry Scheck, who helped defend two of the men, is championing a law that would make it mandatory for police to videotape interrogations from start to finish. For the families, the main goal is to clear their sons’ names. “We have miles to go before this is over,” says Sharonne Salaam. “Our young people are waiting to reclaim their lives.” Just ask her son: “I want to do what normal people do,” he says. “I have never been able to vote. I want to vote for the first time.”

Jill Smolowe

Rebecca Paley in New York City