President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he would not apologize for his harsh comments in 1989 about the Central Park Five, the five black and Latino men who as teenagers were wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a jogger in New York City.
Trump was asked about newspaper advertisements he bought back then calling for New York state to adopt the death penalty after the attack. (The ads never explicitly called for the death penalty for the five defendants.)
“You have people on both sides of that,” he said at the White House. “They admitted their guilt.”
“If you look at Linda Fairstein and if you look at some of the prosecutors, they think that the city never should have settled that case — so we’ll leave it at that,” he added, referring to the former prosecutor who was running the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit at the time.
Trump’s remarks about the Central Park Five were strikingly similar to comments he made in reaction to the deadly violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. A woman was killed after a driver slammed his vehicle into counterprotesters. At the time, the president said, “There was blame on both sides.”
In 1989, Trump placed full-page advertisements in four New York City newspapers, including The New York Times, calling for the state to adopt the death penalty for killers. He made clear that he was voicing this opinion because of the rape and assault of Trisha Meili, a woman who had been jogging in Central Park.
“I want to hate these murderers and I always will,” Trump wrote in the May 1989 ad. “I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”
He wrote in all caps: “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!”
At the time, Trump was an up-and-coming real estate developer who had not yet attained fame, but the advertisements attracted widespread attention.
The five teenagers were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison for gang-raping and nearly killing Meili. Their convictions were vacated in 2002, and the city paid $41 million in 2014 to settle their civil rights lawsuit.
Barry Scheck, a founder of the nonprofit Innocence Project who was part of a team of lawyers who worked with prosecutors to reinvestigate the Central Park Five case, called Trump’s response disturbing.
“It’s shocking and deeply troubling that after all of these years, he would not have recognized that by calling for the reinstitution of the death penalty, it contributed to an atmosphere that deprived these men of a fair trial,” Scheck said.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement Tuesday that the men “were wrongfully convicted and what happened to them was an injustice.”
A Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” which premiered this month, renewed focus on the case and generated public outrage.
Much of that outrage targeted Fairstein, the former prosecutor. She has resigned from a number of prominent boards, including that of Vassar College, her alma mater.
The lead prosecutor on the 1989 case, Elizabeth Lederer, resigned this month as a lecturer at Columbia Law School.
The Netflix series is a dramatized account based on the experiences of the men — Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam — who spent years in prison before being cleared of the charges.
The District Attorney’s Office determined that the attack on Meili was an assault committed by a man named Matias Reyes, who surfaced in 2002 and confessed to the crime. He had been accused of raping, maiming and murdering on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Meili was the second woman he raped and beat in the park that week.
The five boys were elsewhere in the park at the time, an investigation by the District Attorney’s Office found in 2002.