Presidential debate: Biden attacks Trump over demand for Central Park Five to face death penalty

Joe Sommerlad
·4 min read

Donald Trump claimed to have done more for America’s black community than any president “with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln” during his second and final presidential debate with Joe Biden on Thursday night.

Mr Trump has made the boast many times before, frequently doing so at his Make America Great Again rallies where it is allowed to pass unchecked.

But on stage in Nashville, Tennessee, the president’s Democratic challenger openly chuckled at his words, raising his eyes to the ceiling in dismay and exasperation.

Debunking Mr Trump’s attacks on his own support for Bill Clinton’s divisive 1994 crime bill, which led to an increase in African American prison incarceration and over which Mr Biden has previously expressed regret, the Democrat turned his attention to the president’s own troubling record on race.

“He talked about marauding gangs, young gangs, the people who were going to maraude our cities,” Mr Biden said of Mr Trump’s scaremongering rhetoric in office and on the campaign trail.

“This is the guy who, when the Central Park Five - five innocent black kids - he continued to push for making sure they got the death penalty.

“None of them, none of them were guilty of the crimes that were suggested.”

The candidate was referring to the notorious case of five black and Hispanic teenagers, aged between 14 and 16, who were wrongly arrested and accused of raping a Manhattan jogger in the New York City park’s North Woods on the night of 19 April 1989.

Trisha Meili, 28, was brutally beaten and left for dead, spending 12 days in a coma before waking to remember little to nothing of her ordeal.

Under intense media pressure to find the culprits, the New York Police Department picked up Kevin Richardson, 14, Raymond Santana, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and 16-year-old Korey Wise, who had been in the park that evening but insisted they were nowhere near the scene of the crime.

The friends were interrogated for at least seven hours by detectives without their parents present, before four of them made videotaped confessions.

Despite semen found at the scene not matching that of any of the accused, prosecutors convicted them solely on the basis of those confessions, which the five later retracted saying they had been beaten into giving false statements.

After two trials, they were found guilty of offences including attempted murder, rape, assault and robbery and sentenced to six to 13 years in prison, only for the real criminal, Matias Reyes, to come forward in 2002 and finally admit his guilt.

His DNA matched the semen found at the scene and the five were released and exonerated.

But at the height of the public outrage over the matter, Mr Trump - then one of the city’s most prominent celebrities - placed a full-page advert in four New York daily newspapers at a cost of $85,000 (£66,000) demanding: "Bring Back The Death Penalty, Bring Back Our Police!"

A precursor to one of his inflammatory tweets from the White House, the luxury property mogul wrote: "I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyse or understand them, I am looking to punish them."

Defending his vitriol on CNN at the time, Mr Trump commented: “Maybe hate is what we need if we're gonna get something done."

Since the innocence of the Central Park Five was established beyond doubt, Mr Trump has faced regular calls to apologise for his inflammatory intervention and has repeatedly refused to do so.

His advertorial often resurfaces on Twitter whenever he makes an insensitive remark about race as president, routinely this summer as Black Lives Matter protests raged across the country in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Mr Biden’s referrence to the episode inspired a heated discussion among pundits on CNN following the debate’s conclusion, with Anderson Cooper forced to remind former Republican senator Rick Santorum: “The Central Park thing, actually, is five human beings’ lives.”

Mr Trump risked further alienating black voters last night when he criticised Black Lives Matter demonstrators for chanting anti-police sentiments, refusing to express any sympathy with their outrage against institutional injustice and brutality that disproportionately targets African American citizens.

The president also insisted: “I am the least racist person in this room.”

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