President Trump refused Tuesday to apologize for the full-page ad he ran in 1989 calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty after the arrests of the Central Park Five and suggested the men might still be guilty, even though they were exonerated years ago.
This story and headline have been corrected to clarify that President Trump’s 1989 ad did not specifically name the Central Park Five in calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty.
Two weeks after the May 1 ad was published, Trump was questioned by Larry King on his calls to renew the death penalty. Trump said he was perturbed by those who asked if he had compassion for “these young men that raped and beat and mugged and everything else.”
“I said of course I hate these people, let’s all hate these people, maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done,” Trump told King. “It’s incredible when a reporter asks me if I had compassion for the people who did this crime. I have absolutely no compassion.”
Years later, the men were exonerated by DNA evidence and another man’s confession. The story is back in the news with a new Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” focused on the boys, who were wrongfully convicted and served between six and 16 years of their young adulthood in jail.
April Ryan, a White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, tweeted at the president early Tuesday asking if he’d apologize to the five men. Then, as the president left the White House for his reelection kickoff rally in Orlando, Ryan asked him in person.
“They’ve been exonerated, there have been videos shown about the case, when you came out with a full page ad saying that they should die, that they deserved the death penalty,” she said to him.
“Why do you bring that up now? It’s an interesting time to bring that up,” Trump responded. “You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt . . . some of the prosecutors think the city should never have settled that case, and we’ll leave it at that.”
New York City gave the five men a $41 million wrongful-conviction payout in 2014. The men followed up with a lawsuit for an additional $52 million aimed at the state of New York, for which they were awarded $3.9 million.
In his 1989 interview with King, Trump insisted he was not “pre-judging” the young men involved. His call to bring back the death penalty didn’t include minors, he explained, but they should not be exempt punishment, either.
“Of course some of these minors are, you know, 15, 16 years old. They’re 6’2”, and they weigh 240 pounds,” Trump said. “Something has to be done, and it has to be done quickly. Those so-called kids have to be put in a very, very secure and solid prison system for many years.”
Trump has never apologized for his role in exacerbating the heightened emotions of the case. Several weeks before the 2016 election, Trump gave a similar answer to CNN, noting that the boys, who at the time of their convictions were 14 through 16 years old, had admitted guilt.
The boys have said they were coerced by police to do so.
Yusef Salaam, one of the five, wrote a Washington Post essay in 2016 shortly after Trump doubled down on his contention that they were guilty of the crime.
“Trump has never apologized for calling for our deaths,” Salaam wrote. “It’s further proof of Trump’s bias, racism and inability to admit that he’s wrong.”
After the Netflix series aired, Linda Fairstein, the Manhattan district attorney who aggressively pursued the case against the boys, resigned from several boards on which she used to sit, including several that aid sexual assault victims. Fairstein’s book publisher, Dutton, terminated their relationship. Fairstein is the author of a series of crime and mystery novels.
The lead prosecutor on the case, Elizabeth Lederer, resigned last week from her position as lecturer at Columbia Law School, citing the “publicity generated by the Netflix portrayal of the Central Park case.”