By Ciara Watson
Mr. Yusef Salaam stood over 6-and-a-half-feet tall wearing a gray pinned striped suit as he looked onto the audience. The room in the Community Engagement Center was cold silent. A smile arose behind his tears. His somber look suddenly turned into a look of hope and disbelief. He no longer looked to the audience as if we were scared of him.
The story that made Yusef Salaam a household name almost 30 years ago began in New York City — Central Park to be exact. It was called the Central Park jogger case. Salaam was only 15 years old when Trisha Meili was assaulted, raped, and sodomized in Central Park on April 19th, 1989. Salaam and four of his childhood friends, including his younger brother, were all arrested and charged with this horrible crime. They would later be known as The Central Park Five.
He stopped and stared at the provided pictures of newspaper clippings on the projector, brought by his liaison. He looked back to the audience and said, “They (detectives) told me that if I just signed papers, that I could go home.”
He started up again, this time laughing and pacing then he said, “I didn’t see home for another seven years, and my little brother, the one who wanted to ride along with me to the police station for fun…. didn’t see home for another sixteen years.”
After being charged and convicted of the crimes against Trisha Meili in 1989, Salaam spent seven years behind bars, wondering if, and when, the actual rapist would come forward. His mother, a professor at
a local college, lost her job and she began receiving death threats that became an everyday occurrence for her and her family.
Salaam held up letters, of encouragement and support from people whom may have believed his story, but those of hate and fear. The letters said what might happen to him and his family in light of his (wrongful) conviction.
“I hate you. I hope you die. You will pay for what you did one day,” one letter said.
Rubbing his bald head, he continued to read, “Even after you are released from jail years from now, remember this letter, so watch your back. Someone will always be watching you, and you will pay. On the very day you are not watching, you will pay.”
The audience got a cold chilling feeling over them.
“I carry this letter around with me everywhere I go,” Salaam said.
In 2002, Matias Reyes confessed to raping the jogger Trisha Meili, and along with DNA evidence, it proved that he raped and attacked her alone. According to a New York Times article there were reports in 2014 a settlement was made. It awarded the five black and Hispanic plaintiffs about $1 million for each year of their imprisonment. It includes no admission of wrongdoing from the city; in fact, the city clearly stated prosecutors and police detectives did nothing wrong in the case.
In the talk at the CEC, Yusef Salaam said he still has hope through his continued belief. He has hope because anyone who has lived his life up unto this point has nothing left but to have hope in his or her future. Years after his release from prison he looks back on his time in jail as something that was meant to be, Salaam ends is speech by saying,
“God has a plan for me, and I am not done yet completing his mission that he has for me.”