Lesser-Known Central Park Five Co-Defendant Exonerated on Related Robbery Conviction

Steven Lopez, a lesser-known co-defendant of the Central Park Five, had his related robbery conviction overturned Monday, July 25, The New York Times reports.

Lopez was 15 when he and the rest of the Central Park Five were arrested and charged with raping a white woman jogging through Central Park. While the Central Park Five — all teenagers who were either Black or Hispanic — were infamously convicted based on false confessions obtained by police, Lopez struck a deal with prosecutors, avoiding the rape charge, and instead pleading guilty to robbing a male jogger. 

Lopez served over three years in prison and did not appeal his conviction. The Central Park Five, meanwhile, were convicted in separate trials throughout 1990 and spent the next 12 years in prison. They were finally exonerated in February 2002 after DNA evidence indicated that an uncharged suspect, Matias Reyes, had attacked the jogger, Trisha Meili. Reyes, who was serving time for a separate rape and murder charge, confessed to the attack, and the convictions of the Central Park Five were overturned (they later won a $41 million settlement against New York City).

While the story of the Central Park Five has since become one of the most well-known and notorious examples of police misconduct and the racist biases of the American criminal justice system, Lopez’s place in the broader narrative has always been muted. He was not included in the aforementioned settlement, for instance, nor did anyone portray him in Ava DuVernay’s recent miniseries, When They See Us. It was only last February that Lopez brought his case to the attention of the Manhattan district attorney’s office and asked that his conviction be overturned. 

Terri S. Rosenblatt, who works in the Manhattan DA’s wrongful conviction unit, noted that Lopez’s case is an example of innocent defendants being pressured into pleading guilty: “We talk about wrongful trial convictions a lot, but there can be guilty pleas that are wrongful too,” she said. “And our understanding now about people who falsely confess translates over to people who will sometimes even falsely admit in court to a crime that they didn’t commit.”

Similar to the rest of the Central Park Five, Lopez was arrested in April 1989 and kept in a holding cell for nearly 20 hours while he was questioned about various attacks in the park. The then-teenagers who were questioned by the police have accused the cops of pushing them to blame others for the attacks, and some said Lopez had attacked both the male and female joggers at the time. However, there was no forensic evidence tying Lopez to the attack on the male jogger, nor did the man identify Lopez as one of his attackers. Forensic investigators did claim they found one of Meili’s hairs on Lopez’s clothing, but it was later determined that these original hair strand investigations were unreliable.

Ultimately, a detective wrote a statement for Lopez, which said he was at the scene of the attack on the male jogger; Lopez and his father (who couldn’t speak English) signed the statement, though Lopez continued to insist he was not involved in Meili’s rape. Right before his rape trial was set to begin, Lopez was offered a plea deal on first-degree robbery charges.

In court Monday, July 25, Lopez was reportedly silent, only thanking the judge who wished him well during the hearing. Lopez’s lawyer, Eric Renfroe, said his client was seeking privacy, though during the hearing Renfroe said, “I believe what happened to you was a profound injustice and an American tragedy… It is truly painful to see how this system failed you.”

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