The Central Park Five’s Yusef Salaam (right) and his mother Sharon Salaam speak at a news conference June 27 at City Hall in New York.  Yusef is one of five men exonerated in the Central Park jogger rap case in 1989.  The City Comptroller approved a tentative $40 million settlement for the wrongful convictions (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews).

Price of Restitution for the Wrongfully Convicted

“There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise. The human soul cannot be permanently chained.” –W.E.B. Dubois

The final hurdle in establishing the Central Park Five’s (comprised of five Black and Latino teens wrongfully convicted of severely beating and raping a White woman in Central Park in the late 1980s) innocence has been cleared with a federal judge approving a $41 million settlement in September. 

Yet, a check with endless zeros ($1 million for each year the men were locked up) and millionaire status doesn’t incite a celebration, but rather puts a period on 25 years worth of obstacles for justice. 

“As you can imagine, we are all still trying to process what I call a sort of victory,” Yusef Salaam, a Central Park Five exoneree told “New York Amsterdam News.” 

“I’m glad the battle is over, but I know the damage done isn’t covered by the amount we were awarded. No amount can replace the loss of freedom, justice and equality,” he added.

Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Jr. and Kharey Wise were between 14 and 16 years old when wrongfully convicted. 

There is a seven year void for the four men—13 years for Wise—of un-tapped possibilities that were replaced with public recriminations (i.e. major New York newspapers labeled them “wolf packs”) and uncertain futures. 

In 2002, the men were released after DNA evidence determined a convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes—who confessed to committing the crimes alone—was responsible for the then 28-year-old Central Park jogger, Trisha Meilis’ near death experience. 

The following year, the Central Park Five filed a civil lawsuit accusing police and prosecutors of false arrest and carrying out a racially charged conspiracy to strip them of their civil rights. 

Then New York mayor Michael Bloomberg disputed the allegation by trying to get the suit dismissed. A federal judge rejected it and allowed the claim to continue through the process, and left it unresolved during his three-term mayoral tenure. 

The Central Park Five’s civil suit was in limbo for a decade until Bill de Blasio was elected mayor this year. 

Cashing in on his campaign promise he closed the book on an ill-begotten chapter in these five men’s lives.

“An injustice was done and we have a moral obligation to respond to that injustice,” de Blasio said.

He continued, “And we have an obligation to do something fair for them (and) for the whole city to turn the page and move forward.”

In doing so, Richardson, Salaam and Santana will each receive more than $7 million in restitution and Wise will be compensated with $13 million. 

Yet, the reparation falls short on apologies and admitting wrongdoing. 

Hence, New York’s top attorney Zachary Carter, who aided in the settlement suit, rebuffed the Central Park Five’s claims that law enforcement coerced their confessions by emphasizing there was no misconduct when announcing a settlement was reached.

In an interview with “The Huffington Post,” Salaam, who was unavailable to be interviewed, hailed the end of their 25-year struggle as a “bittersweet victory.” Citing the settlement amount as the beginning of a new chapter, he however says it doesn’t recoup the shame and sacrifices their families endured.

The recompense for youth lost and indelible scars made is through dollars and cents for New York, Illinois and Texas—three states with the highest rate of exonerations in 2013, based on population, according to the National Registry of Exonerations—plus 27 other states, including Washington D.C. that offer wrongful conviction compensation. 

But how do you put a price tag on a long-held injustice? 

Regal interviewed two exonerees about how their wrongful conviction compensation has affected their lives. 

“I don’t think anyone will tell you money makes up for the pain or the time lost,” Martin Yant said, an investigator and advocate for the wrongfully convicted. “But that’s about all that can be done to help them compensate their lives.

“The money is somewhat exaggerated. It sounds like a lot and it isn’t,” he added.

The $2.4 million given to Cornelius Dupree of Dallas for his three decades behind bars for a robbery and rape he didn’t commit is necessary, yet paltry for what he believed he’s worthy of.

“Coming out of prison, I wasn’t going to work for the state of Texas. I worked hard labor for 30 years. So (like) a person working on a job for 30 years would retire when presented with the compensation package (I took it). I don’t feel like it’s what I deserve. What I deserve Texas wouldn’t pay it. But my wife could (now) retire,” explained Dupree who was wrongfully convicted in 1979, sentenced to 75 years and exonerated in 2011. 

“I kinda looked at it like I could get on with my life instead of fighting with the state. (The amount of money) meets the purpose (but) I can’t say I’m satisfied. If I was younger, (I) probably would have went ahead [and sued the state],” he added.

An approach that means more money in the pockets of those wrongfully convicted and less in the state’s coffers, according to Brandon L. Garrett, University of Virginia law professor and author of “Convicting the Innocent.” 

Garrett said people exonerated could sue states and likely win awards of $1 million per year imprisoned, whereas in many states, exonerees choosing to settle with the state forfeit the right to sue for additional compensation. An option that has its benefits, said Garrett.

“One advantage is you can get the compensation very quickly. So you can get the money much faster, and in some ways it might be a good thing,” he advised.

It’s the route Rebecca Brown, director of state policy reform at The Innocence Project, an organization devoted to offering legal services to the wrongfully convicted, recommends to her clients because civil lawsuits carry a difficult burden of proving law enforcement misconduct. 

And even if that obstacle is conquered there’s still a risk the state will appeal the suit, and the wrongful conviction compensation remains at a standstill until the back-and-forth court dispute is resolved.

“Not only is it incredibly difficult (but) that decision can be appealed. That person can be waiting years and years…” cautioned Brown. “In instances if there is a compensation law under that state I urge my clients to take it because if there is no fault on a government actor, it would be a fool’s errand.”

Willie Raines, 56, of Ford Heights, Ill., took the state up on their $36 million settlement offer. 

Raines is one-fourth of the Ford Heights Four, a group of four Black men wrongfully convicted of the 1978 rape and double murder of a couple in Ford Heights, Ill. 

In 1996—after nearly 18 years locked in prison—Raines was released. 

DNA evidence cleared him and his three friends from life and death sentences. 

Three years later, the Ford Heights Four agreed on a settlement and Raines received a $7.3 million share of the compensation package.

“I put $160,000 towards the wrongful conviction clinic [at Northwestern University School of Law],” Raines revealed, the same clinic that aided in his release.

“I contributed $160,000 when I received the (settlement) money…when they told me I was getting the money I thought I’d help brothers left behind. I was blessed to get Northwestern to take my case,” he added. 

According to the Innocence Project, wrongfully convicted individuals spend an average of more than a decade behind bars before being released. 

Once they’re free to rejoin society, one that is no doubt unrecognizable, their roadmap to normalcy is paved with question marks because their only takeaway is freedom. 

Brown said ex-convicts are given services to start over and they want the same for people with wrongful convictions. 

“There is no framework in place that really provides that structure. Nothing,” Brown shared, who cites non-profit’s social service programs funded by private donations as support, and communities pooling their money and resources for a neighbor with a wrongful conviction.

In an effort to change that reality for the 1,440 exonerees (61 percent are Black) released from prison based on DNA and non-DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has called on state governments to replicate the federal government’s $50,000 compensation for the wrongfully convicted. 

The recommendation also calls for social services (i.e. healthcare, dental) and payment of lawyer’s fees.

Brown cited Texas as the state closest to meeting those recommendations. The state boasts that it has the most generous wrongful conviction statue in the country. 

The Lone Star State is obligated to pay exonerees $80,000 per year of imprisonment, an annuity, college tuition covering 120 credits and the chance for the wrongfully convicted to buy into the Texas employee healthcare plan. 

Dupree testified to the reparations giving him the new silver lining he prayed for since his wrongful conviction at the age of 19. 

He said no amount of money can recover the time lost, but it helps make new memories with his wife, whom he wed soon after his release.

“It allows us (to go on) an Alaskan cruise for seven days…it allows free time to spend together. My wife and I are together 24 hours a day,” Dupree shared.

“We’re both in our late ages. The reality is our days are numbered, we need to take advantage of this time and be together,” he added. 

In contrast, Raines prefers the solitude. 

He holes up in his man cave, which is actually an RV parked on his 12-acre Indiana farm. He says it’s the perfect escape from people looking for a hand out.

“I go in solitude, in other words I bury myself in my house. I don’t socialize; I lose myself from everybody,” he revealed, admitting to even changing his name from Rainge as protection against harassment.

“[Family members and associates] think I’ve got money, but right now I could pull $10, $5 from my pockets. I’m the brokest millionaire you’ve ever met,” Raines said.

Raines referred to his wrongful conviction payment as the “welfare check” because unlike his fellow exonerees, which have direct access to their funds, he has a monthly annuity. The allowance, suggested by his attorney, wasn’t part of the Illinois compensation package that offers between $85,000 to $199,000 for exonerees that served between five to 14 years or more in prison. 

In addition to covering attorney’s fees, it puts forward re-entry services. 

It’s meant to stretch out Raines’s money over time and grant him protection, however he says it’s made him more vulnerable. 

“In actuality (the compensation) made my life a living hell because everybody thinks I’ve got money,” declared Raines.

The Mississippi native’s mood swings like a pendulum when discussing the ex-wife he divorced eight years ago. 

In one instance he yearns to have the mother of his 10-year-old son back and the other he claims she was only after his wrongful conviction compensation.

When asked what advice he’d give the 321 DNA exonerees—202 are Black—that may receive wrongful conviction compensation: “I don’t think (the money) can ever be enough, on the other hand be aware because they’re going to have a whole lot of drama, if you’ve never had money like that before,” Raines warned.

Robert A. Rosenthal, author of the “Miscarriage of Compensation” opinion piece in “The Providence Journal,” said no numerical figure will replace the loss of exonerees aging with their parents, watching their kids grow, but is intrigued by the statewide variance in compensation.

“The focus is typically on how long the wrongfully convicted were incarcerated opposed to what are the amounts being served to compensate,” Rosenthal shared, an economics professor at Stonehill College, who is in the early stages of developing a study to highlight patterns within the country’s compensation laws for exonerees, if any exist. 

For now, what remains is a steady stream of wrongfully convicted, gathering on court steps around the nation declaring the system is broken.  

Recently it was David McCallum, the 10th wrongfully convicted man exonerated from New York that had tasted freedom for the first time. 

A telling sign of the ever-growing cluster of exonerees bound together by a dark, twisted fate that has yet to change. 

But the years do and no amount can cover that debt. 

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