Raymond Santana of the Exonerated Five visited USC for the "When Justice Prevails!" event hosted at the USC School of Law.
The Exonerated Five is a group of African American and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of raping and assaulting a white female jogger in Central Park when they were all only between 14 and 16 years old in 1989.
In 2002, the real perpetrator confessed to the crime and all five of the men had their convictions overturned. Their story was recently told in the Emmy award winning Netflix miniseries, "When They See Us."
During the discussion, Santana shared his experience and the utter fear he felt as a child while being questioned by the police.
"He starts yelling and cursing at me, banging on the table, and he says 'I’m tired of this, you’re gonna give me what I want,' and it's at that moment he reaches over the table, and I feel like I’m not gonna get out of the precinct. I’m gonna die," Santana said.
Santana also talked about how the authorities pressured and coerced him and the other boys into making false confessions.
"And so a 14- or 15-year old kid who doesn't know the law, doesn't know what happened, doesn't know what to say, he lies, and he feels it’s not his job to find the truth. You’re the adult. That's why the police, you are the parent figure who’s in the room. You're the adult, and you're supposed to figure out what really happened," Santana said, but he said the police did not live up to this expectation.
For Santana, life after being released was equally as hard, and he said he struggled to find a job because of his criminal record.
"Nobody would hire me, and so I became very frustrated and I didn’t know what to do, and that was my second time of hitting rock bottom," Santana said. "I start to say, 'Okay this is where being in prison for so long starts to kick in, because now you move into survival mode. What do I do? How do I function? How do I move forward?'"
Santana also discussed the pain of being looked down upon by his own community for a crime he did not commit.
"Nobody said, 'This is Raymond, my childhood friend,' 'This is Raymond, my cousin,' 'This is Raymond, my next-door neighbor.' Everybody said, 'This is Raymond, one of the Central Park Five,'" Santana said.
Ke'Nia Washington, a third-year marketing and operations supply chain student, said she was inspired by Santana's resilience.
“What spoke to me the most was definitely the aspect that he kept pushing about winning and proving people wrong, because I feel like a lot of times in society people lose hope and lose sight of a vision, no matter what that vision is, and especially with the injustices that happen in the United States and all over the world," Washington said.
Cameron Smith, a third-year political science student, is a member of the Theta Nu Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which helped to sponsor the event. He said the most important part of Santana's message was the power and influence of the youth in today's society, and he emphasized the importance of social awareness among students.
"We don't have an excuse to not know what's going on. It's in the news, and it's the biggest issues in our country," Smith said.
Washington said there are important steps the community can take against injustice.
"As long as we keep our conversation open, we keep our minds open, and our hearts open to each other, I feel like, as a community, we’ll always be moving forward," Washington said.