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Raymond Santana of the 1989 Central Park case on Trump, pursuing dreams and the importance of voting

“For me, exercising my political voice, my political power — that was part of the healing process,” Santana said.
Image: Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam
From left, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam attend "When They See Us" World Premiere at The Apollo Theater on May 20, 2019 in New York City.John Lamparski / Getty Images file

After Raymond Santana and the rest of the young men in the Central Park jogger rape case were exonerated of all charges in 2002, he knew that he wanted to start reclaiming the life that was stolen from him.

He was one of the five Black and Latino teens who were falsely accused and convicted of attacking and raping the jogger in 1989. Santana, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam each spent a range of five to 11 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. The group had become known as the Central Park Five, but have since adopted the name, the Exonerated Five.

“When the incarceration happened, it was me losing something,” Santana, who was 14 at the time of his arrest, told NBC News last week. When a friend asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life after he was released, Santana said one thing he wanted to focus on was encouraging young people to become civically engaged.

The right to vote was one Santana gained for the first time after his exoneration at the age of 27 and is one he does not take lightly. “For me, exercising my political voice, my political power — that was part of the healing process,” he said. “It was being a part of something and saying ‘I can vote now. I can make change. I can make decisions.’”

While Santana, 45, has been voting regularly since the early 2000s, experiencing the 2016 election was uniquely personal to him. That is because the story of the five teens and the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure have been tied together from the beginning.

Shortly after their arrest, Trump, then a New York City real estate magnate, spent thousands on a full page advertisement placed in four newspapers, that called for the restoration of the death penalty in New York while also bemoaning the state of public safety and the lack of policing.

While the advertisement did not directly call for the execution of the teenagers, the text did make clear that Trump was voicing his opinion because of the attack on the jogger. Surveying the demise of “law and order” in New York City, Trump wrote, "At what point did we cross the line from the fine and noble pursuit of genuine civil liberties to the reckless and dangerously permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman and then laugh at her family's anguish?”

“We weren't even convicted yet,” when the advertisement was published, Santana recalled. He views the ad and its invocation of the death penalty as the moment that ratcheted public opinion into a frenzy against the wrongfully accused teens. It also opened the door for others to join the outrage, by strengthening punishments for juveniles in several states, as well as the passage of several tough-on-crime bills in the 1990s, he recalled.

When asked if he would apologize to the five for the advertisement and his remarks in the 90s, Trump told reporters last year that “You have people on both sides of that … They admitted their guilt.”

Image: Raymond Santana
Raymond Santana in a shirt by Park Madison NYC, a clothing company he's partnering with to promote voter engagement in 2020.Park Madison NYC

That 1989 advertisement is incorporated into the design of one of the T-shirts in a new capsule line that was recently unveiled by Park Madison NYC, a design brand Santana and his friend Rasheed Young founded in 2018. The new line focuses on getting Black and Latino communities out to the polls in November.

Going into fashion was Santana’s way of pursuing a childhood dream. “I loved to sketch and do art. But, you know, going through this whole ordeal with this case, it destroyed my drive, it killed it,” he said. “It started with wanting to reclaim something that I lost as a 14-year-old kid.”

Santana says the line specifically focuses on voting because it can be a relatively easy way to get young people engaged in civics. “We don't expect you to just jump out and be in the front line of a rally and a protest. You start with just going to the polls.”

One of the T-shirts in Santana’s new line specifically invokes Trump’s 1989 advertisement and its “Bring Back The Death Penalty” headline. “We have to do our part in spreading the awareness of how he played a part in our lives and let people see that example,” he said.

Santana lives in Georgia with his wife, Chandra Davis, known for her run on the show “Flavor of Love” as Deelishis. In addition to designing, he frequently speaks at schools about his experiences with incarceration and the criminal justice system. A new generation of Americans also learned the details of his story last year with the release of the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us.”

It was a tweet that he sent to Ava DuVernay that first got the acclaimed director interested in adapting the story of the Central Park rape case for the screen. The success of “When They See Us” “was a sign of vindication,” Santana said. “It was a platform for the whole world to see what happened to the five of us.”

Santana said he ultimately hopes that other people who have survived traumas of any kind are encouraged to use their voices to create a better world.

He speaks to a lot of kids who want to work in social justice or criminal justice, and others who even want to be prosecutors and police officers. While many have told him they are surprised he encourages young people to pursue the latter two fields, Santana says they shouldn’t be.

“If you want to make change, you don't run from those positions. You enter into those positions. You want to be a prosecutor, be a prosecutor,” he said. “But when you occupy those spaces, you have a duty to the community to do that job effectively.”

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CORRECTION (Oct. 21, 2020, 12:11 p.m. ET) A previous version of this article misstated how much time the five men in the Central Park jogger case served in prison. Santana spent five years in prison, but the others served different amounts, ranging from 5 to 12 years, according to the Innocence Project. They did not all serve five years.