Yusef Salaam may be a professional family man, but he still bears the trauma of a lost youth spent in prison as one of five Harlem teens wrongfully convicted in the notorious 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park.
More than a decade after the confession of a convicted serial rapist cleared the five, Salaam told a group on Long Island Saturday that he is haunted by old news images of himself as a lanky 15-year-old in a suit, showing up to a courthouse with a lawyer ill-equipped to defend him.
He served nearly 7 years in prison, reading religious texts and struggling to make sense of his fate. Re-entering society wasn't easy for him and the others, he said.
"They exonerated us but they didn't erase the indelible scars of doing hard time," Salaam told about 50 people who came to hear his story at the Lakeview Public Library in Rockville Centre as part of Black History month.
The film depicted the five black and Latino youths -- Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray -- as teenagers who were coerced into giving false confessions to investigators who rushed to judge them and a sensationalist media that fed public opinion amid a racially tense time in New York City's history.
Dubbed "the crime of the century" by the late Mayor Ed Koch, the case involved a 29-year-old white woman found raped and beaten nearly to death in north Central Park on April 19, 1989. She was known only as the Central Park Jogger before revealing herself publicly as Trisha Meili in a bestselling novel about her recovery.
In early 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, confessed he was Meili's lone attacker; DNA evidence linked him to the crime.
The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated by Justice Charles Tejada on Dec. 19, 2002.
The Central Park Five have a $250 million lawsuit pending against the city, charging they were the victims of malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and a lack of due process.
"This isn't just a story about the Central Park Five. This story is about the travesty of justice that can happen at any time," said Salaam, now 38 and living in Harlem. He is a father and health care information technology administrator.
Several members of the audience were moved to tears listening to him. At times, he held his youngest daughter, who is 13 months old.
Sophia Stewart, 40, of Valley Stream attended the event with her three sons, the eldest of whom is 13. "This is a part of history we have to make sure doesn't happen again," she said.