MLK Jr. Day Program: Kevin Richardson of the “Exonerated Five”
Kevin Richardson’s story is truly one of strength, resilience, and perseverance. Richardson is the youngest member of the “Central Park Five,” now known as the “Exonerated Five,” who were the five teenagers wrongfully convicted in the infamous “Central Park jogger case” in 1989.
On the night of April 19, 1989, Richardson, who was 14 at the time, joined a large group of other teenagers going to hang out in Central Park in New York City. That night, a woman was assaulted, raped, and nearly killed in another area of Central Park. Beginning in the early hours of April 20, Richardson and four other black and Latino teenagers were interrogated by police for over 30 hours, with no parental or legal counsel, until they were coerced into a confession involving the assaulted woman.
Those five teenagers were then tried and convicted for that crime, and all served prison sentences ranging from seven to 13 years. All of this happened despite there being no evidence Richardson and the other four were involved, and it is now widely regarded as a prominent example of racial discrimination and inequality in the justice system.
“At that time, I just had that strength to get through it, that perseverance to keep striving for justice, and that resilience knowing the world would eventually find out the truth,” Richardson explained to the Avon Old Farms community during a special community program on Saturday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In 2002, after the actual assailant confessed to the crime, the five teenagers were exonerated and sued the city and state for discrimination and emotional distress. Richardson eventually turned to public speaking as a form of therapy, to share his story, and to spread a message stressing the importance of strength, resilience, and perseverance.
“This is a really nice place, very welcoming,” Richardson said to a capacity crowd in the Brown Auditorium. “I am so happy to be able to speak to a group of young men because if you can get a kid's attention, that’s a powerful thing.”
He began by telling students to imagine his experience because he was their age when his life changed. “I had dreams of playing basketball at Syracuse. I was a really good trumpet player. I had a girl I was crushing on—I was planning on asking her to the prom, but instead of going to the prom, I was going to court. There were so many times when I thought, ‘Is this really my life?’”
Richardson told students that he remained resilient, and continued his education while he was imprisoned, eventually earning a college degree. “I was incarcerated physically, not mentally.”
This resilience, he said, is something he hopes the AOF community can emulate through their own struggles. “Part of why I do this is to raise awareness that no matter where you are, who you are, what you’re going through, you can get through it.”
One aspect of Richardson’s story that particularly applies to Avonians is the role that a brotherhood played in helping him overcome his experience. He refers to the other four members of the Exonerated Five as his ‘brothers.’ “We really had to lean on each other.”
Although his story is a well-known example of the injustices that have taken place in this country, Richardson acknowledged that his story was not the first, and was not the last example of discrimination in our history. “We still have a long way to go.”
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Ahmad Cantrell, who organized the program, said that sharing Richardson’s story with students is an important part of learning from our history and striving for social change.
“The reality is we’re going to be handing this world off to the youth, so it’s important to give them the tools and the knowledge to make it a better place,” Cantrell said.
He added that this societal change is exactly what Martin Luther King, Jr. was working toward, which is part of what makes Richardson a fitting visitor to mark the occasion.
“The biggest reason why I invited Kevin Richardson to speak is because of his humanity. He’s faced trials and tribulations, faced the worst of society, and he came out of it with a desire to create change. He’s a perfect fit for what our community and individuals need to strive for. He’s relatable to our entire community because humanity is something we all share.”
Richardson ended his presentation with a Q+A portion, so that students and faculty could ask more about his story and his message. These questions ranged from how he maintained his mental health and what was the biggest adjustment coming out of prison, to what are the biggest current issues with the justice system?
He concluded by offering students a piece of advice: “Stay true to your character. It’s ironic talking about content of character, words made famous by MLK, but it’s true. Whatever your background or beliefs or struggles, stay firm to what you believe in.”
In addition to his work as a public speaker, Richardson is heavily involved with the Innocence Project, which works to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice. He also helps operate the Kevin Richardson Scholarship Fund at Syracuse University, where he recently became the first ever honorary undergraduate degree recipient in school history.
“You can do something in your own community to help out. Even if you aren’t connected to what I’ve been through, we all have a heart, and we can all help the greater good.”