Under the Dome

He was one of the Central Park Five. Now he’s talking about Trump and his wrongful conviction.

Yusef Salaam, center, who was wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in 1989, will give the keynote address on Oct. 14, 2017, at an American Civil Liberty Union-North Carolina awards ceremony.
Yusef Salaam, center, who was wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in 1989, will give the keynote address on Oct. 14, 2017, at an American Civil Liberty Union-North Carolina awards ceremony. Getty Images

When President Donald Trump told media in August that he did not immediately condemn hate groups after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville because he did not “know all the facts,” Yusef Salaam bristled at the words.

Salaam, a former New Yorker who is speaking at an awards ceremony for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina on Saturday, recalled a time in 1989 where Trump was not inclined to wait for “all the facts” in another case.

On May 1, 1989, 11 days after an investment banker jogging through Central Park was brutally attacked and raped, Trump took out full page advertisements in four New York newspapers titled “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”

“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” Trump’s ad stated. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”

Salaam, who lives in Atlanta now, remembers Trump’s words well and they continue to have a particular sting.

The 43-year-old father of seven daughters was one of the so-called “Central Park Five,” a group of teenagers wrongfully convicted of that high-profile attack despite their insistence that incriminating statements they had made to authorities had been coerced after the young men, all black or Hispanic, had been deprived of food, drink or sleep.

“During our trial, it seemed like every New Yorker had an opinion. But no one took it further than Trump,” Salaam said in a column published in The Washington Post and on other media sites shortly after the Charlottesville rally ended with one dead and 19 injured. “He called for blood in the most public way possible. ... At the time, our families tried to shield us from what was going on in the media, but we still found out about Trump’s ads. My initial thought was, ‘Who is this guy?’ I was terrified that I might be executed for a crime I didn’t commit.”

In a telephone interview earlier this week, Salaam said he plans to talk at the ACLU ceremony in Raleigh about what he’s done since his wrongful conviction. He was 16 when New York law enforcement officers rounded up him and 29 other teenagers in the park the night the jogger was found beaten and left for dead. He served more than five years in prison until a convicted murderer and rapist confessed to the crime and DNA evidence also exonerated the Central Park Five.

“Donald Trump made a rush to judgment in our case,” Salaam said. “You see that he stayed on that same side of history with what he’s doing today.”

Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU-NC, called Salaam a “powerful advocate” whose message the organization hopes will “inspire others to fight for justice.”

“The harsh reality is that so many of the injustices Yusef faced are still pervasive threats to due process for people of color and economically disadvantaged people in North Carolina today. At the ACLU, we’re working every day to change this broken system so that justice isn’t reserved solely for the powerful.”

Salaam said this week he had heard about the debate over the Confederate monuments in North Carolina, and he supports taking them down and making sure history is portrayed accurately.

“I think they absolutely should be removed and what should happen is a complete retelling of history,” Salaam said.

At the ceremony where Salaam will talk about questions of race, class, the criminal justice system and legal protections for young people in police custody, the ACLU plans to honor North Carolinians for civil liberty work.

They include:

▪ James E. Williams, Jr., the recently retired public defender for Orange and Chatham counties, who is being recognized for lifetime achievement in civil liberties.

▪ Joaquín Carcaño, Payton McGarry, Angela Gilmore, Hunter Schafer, Madeline Goss and Quinton Harper, LGBTQ residents who are party to the lawsuit challenging House Bill 2 and its replacement, HB 142.

▪ Nan Lund, Robert Voelker and Liesa Montag-Siegel who challenged Rowan County commissioners’ for opening their meetings with prayer, a practice the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional. That case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

▪ The UNC Center for Civil Rights, which recently was stripped of its authority to file lawsuits by the UNC Board of Governors.

▪ Elaine Gordon, former capital defender, for her work to end the death penalty, and

▪ Davion M. Washington, Jr., who has made a name for himself talking about what it’s like to be a black male growing up in Charlotte.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1