Freed from prison for a crime he didn't commit, 'Central Park Five' member wins NYC Council race

Yusef Salaam, one of the exonerated "Central Park Five," has won a Democratic primary for a seat on the New York City Council, all but assuring him of eventual victory. It’s an improbable feat for a political novice who was wrongly accused, convicted and imprisoned as a teenager for the rape and beating of a white jogger in Central Park.

The Associated Press refrained from calling the race to represent Central Harlem on election night, but vote tallies released Wednesday showed him to be the clear winner, garnering nearly two-thirds of the vote after three rounds of rank-choice voting.

"Many doubted us along the way, but this was a campaign based on change," Salaam said after AP called the race. "The voters overwhelmingly agreed with our vision for a better, stronger and more tolerant community.

New York City Council candidate Yusef Salaam speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in New York. Salaam, one of the exonerated "Central Park Five," has won the Democratic primary, Wednesday, July 7, all but ass

Salaam and the four other Black and Latino teens from Harlem became known as the Central Park Five after their arrest in 1985 in the headline-grabbing rape, one of the city’s most notorious and racially fraught crimes. He served nearly seven years in prison before the group was exonerated through DNA evidence.

His outsider campaign prevailed over two political veterans — New York Assembly members Inez Dickens, 73, and Al Taylor, 65 — in his first bid for public office. Democratic socialist Kristin Richardson Jordan, the incumbent council member, dropped out of the race in May but remained on the ballot.

Salaam declared victory on election night with his vote tally barely exceeding 50%, although an unknown number of absentee ballots had yet to be counted. But his lead over Dickens, his nearest competitor, seemed insurmountable, and both she and Taylor conceded.


Yusef Salaam takes lead in New York City Council primary

While all three candidates focused on promoting affordable housing and controlling gentrification in Harlem, Salaam capitalized on his celebrity in neighborhoods that consider the Central Park Five — also called the Exonerated Five —heroes.

Salaam initially fell slightly below 50% of the vote in Wednesday’s update, triggering the release of preliminary ranked choice voting results that showed him as the clear winner, with nearly 64% of first and second-choice votes.

While all three candidates focused on promoting affordable housing, controlling gentrification and easing poverty in Harlem, Salaam capitalized on his celebrity in neighborhoods that consider the Central Park Five — now the Exonerated Five — to be living symbols of the injustices faced by the Black and Latino residents who make up about three-fourth’s of the district’s population.

"He comes from the neighborhood, and he was incarcerated then turned himself around," said voter Carnation France. "He’s trying to do something for the people."

Others were looking for a change in leadership.

Zambi Mwendwa said she voted for Salaam because he is "a new face." She said her decision had nothing to do with the injustice in his past.

"I’ve heard him talk. He seems to be talking about the things I care about," Mwendwa said on election day.

Salaam's lack of experience in public office might have actually worked in his favor, according to Amani Onyioha, a partner at Sole Strategies, which ran phone banks and engaged residents on Salaam’s behalf.

"In a time like this, when people are looking for a hero, they're looking for somebody who can relate to them," Onyioha said.

"I think people saw him as a survivor," Onyioha said. 

Salaam moved to Georgia shortly after he was released and became an activist, a motivational speaker, an author and a poet. He returned only in December to launch his campaign.

Salaam was 15 when he was arrested along with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, who served between five and 12 years in prison before prosecutors agreed to reexamine the case. DNA evidence and a confession ultimately linked a serial rapist and murderer to the attack, but he wasn’t prosecuted because too much time had passed. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 and the city ultimately agreed in a legal settlement to pay the exonerated men a combined $41 million.

A 2012 Ken Burns documentary called "The Central Park Five" rekindled public attention on the men's childhood saga. More recently, a 2019 television miniseries, "When They See Us," drew attention again, just before the Black Lives Matter Movement was launched in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Burns and his co-directors applauded Harlem voters for "electing a man who has dedicated his life to reconciliation."

Donald Trump, who in 1989 placed ads in four newspapers before the group went on trial with the blaring headline "Bring Back the Death Penalty," later refused to apologize, saying all five had pleaded guilty — a reference to their coerced confessions. Salaam reminded voters of that in April, putting out his own full-page ad headlined "Bring Back Justice & Fairness," in response to one of Trump's indictments.