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NEW YORK — A long-forgotten sixth suspect in the notorious 1989 Central Park Five rape case was exonerated Monday, more than 30 years after he pleaded guilty to a related crime, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced.
Steven Lopez was 14 years old when he was arrested along with the Central Park Five — Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam. The more well-known five were convicted separately of raping a white woman jogging in the park ― a crime that outraged the city and contributed to racial tensions across the five boroughs.
The five’s convictions were vacated, and they received a $41 million settlement from the city in 2014.
Lopez pleaded guilty to robbing a male jogger the same night as the rape to avoid a more ruinous conviction. He pleaded after two of the Central Park Five had been found guilty at trial.
Lopez served more than three years in prison and did not appeal his conviction.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg described flawed investigative techniques similar to ones uncovered in the case against the Central Park Five, who were all between 14 and 16 years old when they were arrested.
“Mr. Lopez pleaded guilty in the face of false statements, unreliable analysis amidst external pressure,” Bragg said at a news conference. “There was no physical evidence connecting Mr. Lopez to the charge.”
Lopez wore a three-piece suit at a Manhattan Criminal Court hearing and shook Bragg’s hand before leaving the courtroom.
“Mr. Lopez, we wish you peace and healing,” Judge Ellen Biben said after signing an order vacating the conviction.
Lopez declined to comment after the hearing.
Bragg apologized for Lopez's decadeslong ordeal.
“I’m sorry for the circumstances that led to this day. But I hope that this morning was a step forward for him and his loved ones,” Bragg said. “Many largely forgot that there were six who were falsely accused of rape of the Central Park jogger. He was questioned in the middle of the night. He was implicated by unreliable forensic evidence, and by statements, and as many of you will recall, he was up against incredible public scrutiny.”
Eric Renfroe, a lawyer for Lopez, said his client was feeling a range of emotions.
“I don’t think I could describe what this means to him,” Renfroe said. “I couldn’t imagine having gone through this, and I think that he’s tremendously strong for having endured it.”
Salaam, Santana and McCray were convicted of rape, assault and robbery. Wise was found guilty of sexual abuse, assault and riot, and Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, robbery, assault and riot.
All five suspects spent between seven and 13 years in prison. But in 2002, a prison inmate, Matias Reyes, said he was the one who actually raped 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili on April 19, 1989. DNA evidence backed his confession.
Richardson, McCray, Santana, Wise and Salaam all had their convictions overturned. The five’s confessions were widely criticized as coerced during lengthy interrogations without lawyers present.
The 2014 payout from the city was accompanied by outrage from the five exonerees’ detractors, including future President Donald Trump, who stood by ads he took out in four of the city’s newspapers in the aftermath of the incident calling for the death penalty. The five also received a $3.9 million payout from the state in 2016.
Lopez, now 48, received nothing. Bragg’s move paves the way for Lopez to file a lawsuit against the city.
Critics argued that the defendants were part of a group of young marauders who menaced people in the park, robbing, beating and harassing joggers, walkers and people sitting on benches. The alleged out-of-control behavior was described as “wilding.”
But supporters have argued that even if they were involved in criminal activity outside the sexual assault, they more than paid the price with the time they spent in jail for a rape they did not commit.
The Central Park Five later became known as the “Exonerated Five” and have been the subjects of a documentary and Netflix TV drama.