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New York City Council candidate Yusef Salaam during an interview with The Associated Press on May 24, 2023. (AP) New York City Council candidate Yusef Salaam during an interview with The Associated Press on May 24, 2023. (AP)

New York City Council candidate Yusef Salaam during an interview with The Associated Press on May 24, 2023. (AP)

Conor Amendola
By Conor Amendola July 25, 2023

If Your Time is short

  • In 1989, as New York City was reeling from the “Central Park Five” case in which a woman in Central Park was raped and beaten, Donald Trump took out an ad calling for the reimposition of the state’s death penalty.

  • Two decades later, the five men were exonerated based in part on DNA evidence. One, Yusef Salaam, won a primary earlier this year for a seat on New York’s city council. 

  • Despite the exoneration, Trump on at least five occasions has expressed that he continues to believe the original verdict that the men were guilty and that a settlement made by the city was a mistake.

Yusef Salaam turned the historical tides when he won a Democratic primary election for New York City Council on June 27. 

Salaam was one of five Black teens convicted and imprisoned for the 1989 rape and beating of a 28-year-old jogger, in a case that became known nationally as the Central Park Five. Salaam spent nearly a decade in prison before his and the other four men’s convictions were overturned amid growing evidence of the weakness of the prosecution’s case. 

When the case was being prosecuted, Donald Trump, then a New York real estate magnate, was one of the Central Park Five’s highest-profile antagonists. 

On March 30, as Salaam was running for city council, he tweeted, "For those asking about my statement on the indictment of Donald Trump — who never said sorry for calling for my execution — here it is: Karma." 

Salaam’s tweet came the day a grand jury indicted Trump for actions surrounding a $130,000 hush money payment in 2016 to adult film actor Stormy Daniels. 

With Salaam now heavily favored to win the seat on the city council, and with Trump now vying to retake the presidency, we decided to take a closer look at Trump’s comments over the years, which could come up again in his campaign.

1989 newspaper ads and TV interviews

Not long after the five were arrested, Trump placed full-page ads in New York newspapers urging New York to bring back the death penalty. 

"These muggers and murderers" should be "forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes," said the ad, above Trump’s signature.

Trump also offered similar views in a 1989 interview with CNN’s Larry King. Trump said a TV reporter had asked him whether he had any compassion for the defendants. Trump said he told her, "Of course I hate these people, and let's all hate these people because maybe hate is what we need if we're gonna get something done."

How Trump addressed it later on

Trump’s campaign did not respond to inquiries for this article. But we found at least five occasions when Trump spoke derisively about the original defendants, even though a decade or more had passed since they had been officially exonerated. (Another man came forward and was proved to have been the perpetrator, based on DNA evidence. In 2014, New York paid the original defendants a $41 million settlement, and supporters have called the group the Exonerated Five.)

Here are the instances we found when Trump addressed the case, in chronological order:

• In an April 24, 2013, tweet, Trump criticized a documentary made by a team that included award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns. The documentary, which had recently been released, was sympathetic to the five men, who had already been exonerated for more than a decade by the time of its release.

• In a June 5, 2013, response to other Twitter users, Trump called the five men "muggers."

• On June 21, 2014, Trump contributed an op-ed to the New York Daily News, reacting to the settlement with the five exonerated men, which had just been announced. 

"My opinion on the settlement of the Central Park Jogger case is that it's a disgrace," Trump wrote. "A detective close to the case, and who has followed it since 1989, calls it ‘the heist of the century.’"

Calling the settlement "politics at its lowest and worst form," Trump wrote, "What about the other people who were brutalized that night, in addition to the jogger? … Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels."

• In October 2016 — after one of the exonerated men, Raymond Santana Jr., criticized then-presidential candidate Trump for his views on the case — Trump offered a statement to CNN: "They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same."

• During Trump’s presidency, on June 18, 2019, a reporter asked him, "Will you apologize to the Central Park 5? They've been exonerated. There have been videos and movies shown about the case, and you came out with a full-page ad saying that they should die, that they should have the death penalty. Do you apologize?"

Trump responded, "Why would you bring that question up now? It's an interesting time to bring it up." 

When the reporter noted the recent release of Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary "When They See Us," Trump continued, "You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt. If you look at Linda Fairstein, and if you look at some of (the) prosecutors, they think that the city should never have settled that case. So we'll leave it at that." 

The documentary laid a share of the blame for the original prosecution on Fairstein, who headed the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan DA’s office from 1976 to 2002 and played a key role in overseeing the case. 

While Fairstein had been lauded by women’s groups for prosecuting sex crimes over most of her career, she saw her professional reputation decline after the Netflix documentary resurfaced her role in the prosecution for a new generation of viewers. 

Fairstein did not back down in a 2019 Wall Street Journal op-ed, published as the Netflix documentary was being released. She argued that the five should have been held responsible for other charges and that "there was certainly more than enough evidence to support those convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot and other charges."

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Did Donald Trump ever apologize to the ‘Central Park Five’?