An oft-overlooked sixth defendant in the Central Park Five rape case that has transfixed New York and the nation for decades was exonerated on Monday afternoon, 31 years after he pleaded guilty to a lesser crime rather than stand trial for sexual assault in the high-profile case.
Steven Lopez, 48, teared up in the New York State Supreme Court room when Chief Administrative Judge Ellen Biben granted the Manhattan district attorney’s joint motion to vacate Lopez’s related conviction for robbery and dismiss the indictment for lack of evidence – years after the better-known Central Park Five co-defendants were exonerated.
“Mr. Lopez’s plea was not entered voluntarily, in light of the external pressures created by the specific circumstances of this case,” Biben said. “Mr. Lopez, who was 15 years old at the time of his arrest and 17 at the time of his plea, believed going to trial was not a viable option given that he knew that forensic evidence and statements — which we have now accepted to be wholly unreliable — would be used against him.”
Lopez was among the group of Black and Latino teens charged in the sexual assault and brutal beating of white female jogger Trishna Meili in Central Park on April 19th, 1989. Unlike the other co-defendants, however, Lopez accepted a plea bargain rather than stand trial for rape. Two years later, he pleaded guilty to charges he robbed a male jogger in the park the same night Meili was attacked.
Lopez served four years in prison, and largely faded into obscurity even after his co-defendants were convicted in the Meili attack, were sent to prison, and years later exonerated of the crime, which came to highlight racial divisions in the city and in the criminal justice system.
A month after Alvin Bragg was sworn into office in January as the first Black Manhattan district attorney, Lopez’s counsel requested a review of his conviction – an inquiry that led to Monday’s court proceeding.
“I was roughly about the same age as Mr. Lopez when he pled guilty,” Bragg said at a press conference immediately following Biben’s order officially exonerating Lopez. “I can remember going from school to [Central Park] to play and the shadow of that case, in that moment in our criminal justice history, was with me day by day, and to this day.”
After the 15-minute court proceeding, Lopez’s attorney, Eric Renfroe, hugged Lopez and patted him on the back. Lopez was then quickly escorted out of the courtroom. Renfroe said Lopez is seeking privacy at this time. He made no public comment.
“I believe what happened to you was a profound injustice and an American tragedy,” Renfroe said to Lopez in front of the judge. “When we first met, you asked what if it were me?... And unfortunately, it’s not a foreign concept that I think most people of color in America can relate to.”
The motion before the court – put forth by Bragg’s office and signed by Renfroe as well – stated that Lopez’s conviction was unjust and his guilty plea was not “knowing, voluntary or intelligently made, but was borne out of egregious pressure brought on by the false statements of numerous witnesses,” and that his plea was “unconstitutionally obtained.”
There was no physical evidence connecting Lopez to the attack on the male jogger and Lopez was never identified by the male jogger or by any bystander, according to the motion.
The Central Park Five — Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise — have been source material for numerous books, documentary and dramatic treatments. They were exonerated in 2002 after the real rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. In 2014, the five reached a $41 million settlement with New York City.
Lopez has never received settlement money, and Renfroe declined to comment when asked if Lopez would seek financial restitution.
Bragg said he hopes Monday’s action will “move the needle forward” and advance the greater public’s faith in our justice system.
Lopez had worked with other attorneys on this case before he met Renfroe in 2019, according to the attorney.
“I couldn’t imagine having gone through this, and I think that he’s tremendously strong for having endured it,” Renfroe said. “I’m sure that he’s feeling a range of emotions but I’m hoping today, at the very least, vindicated.”