On Trauma & Redemption: What I Learned from Sharing Space with Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson

Earlier this week, my wife Leslie tagged me in a Facebook posting from her alma mater’s (Xavier University of New Orleans) page about a public lecture being hosted by their Center for Equity, Justice and the Human Spirit featuring two of the five men now known as the “Exonerated 5”.

Back in November 2019, the center’s organizers hosted a similar talk with The 1619 Project founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, that we thoroughly enjoyed. So, when Leslie asked if I wanted to make the 80-mile trek from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to see these brothers, it was a no-brainer for me. As a journalist and public relations director, Leslie was especially excited that the discussion would be moderated by none other than White House Correspondent, April Ryan. Being someone who has also appreciated Ms. Ryan’s candor on cable news was equally enthused to be in the room for her discussion with the featured guests: Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson. On Wednesday after work, we hopped on the interstate and arrived on Xavier’s campus minutes before the discussion began, scanning the room for two empty seats in the ballroom that was predictably packed wall to wall with students and community members.

After being introduced by representatives from the Center, April Ryan immediately set the tone for what would be a robust, heartwarming conversation with two of the most visible advocates for criminal justice reform in the world. Utilizing a combination of humor, charm and a lifetime of journalistic research, Ryan began by recanting the details of the 1989 wrongful conviction that would turn Richardson and Santana along with Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray into household names in New York City.

The 18 to 21 year old students in the room were not even thought of at the time of the then ‘Central Park 5,’ who were brought up on rape and assault charges of Central Park jogger, Trisha Meili, but they were all well versed on the specifics of the case largely in part to the Emmy-winning Netflix series, When They See Us. As a measure of not immediately rehashing trauma, much of the early parts of Ryan’s moderating leaned into the outpour of support and awareness garnered from the success of When They See Us. Both Richardson and Sanatana, as well as their other ‘Exonerated brothers,’ have greatly embraced their position as advocates for prison and criminal justice reform. They have lent time, resources and their stories to causes aimed at balancing a structurally unjust legal system. But as to be expected, when the conversation pivoted to their time of incarceration, Richardson and Santana gave the audience a visceral description of what it was like to be falsely imprisoned children, with the weight of a biased media and major municipal influencers aiming to make sure their lives would be irreversibly ruined.

When Kevin Richardson began retelling his account of that fateful day on April 19, 1989, it was the story of a small 14 year old, budding trumpet player excited about being out of school on spring break.

“I remember being so excited not to be at school, not knowing I wouldn’t return home until seven years later” Richardson tells us and we collectively gasp from the heaviness of that realization as if he was experiencing it all over again in real-time.

When Ryan inquired about the gritty details of surviving his sentencing he simply told her, “I felt like we were gonna die in there at 14”. As I sat listening to him speak of the horrors of being imprisoned with an accusation of sexual assault, being labeled “rapist” by his fellow inmates and fearing the consequences that prison culture assigns to sex offenders, it is evident that whatever I have read or watched regarding this case pales in comparison to the raw emotion conveyed by a now 45-year-old Kevin Richardson revisiting the trauma from that period in his life.

At one point during the talk, his wife is asked (from the audience) about their home life. She told us how she often catches Kevin crying in solitude and several folks in the audience began to softly weep. It is at that moment we understood that no amount of settlement money, Hollywood acclaim nor cross country speaking engagements can eradicate the trauma he still lives with. We were collectively mourning the loss of innocence with him and the gravity of what was unjustly stolen was fresh not based on his current status, but because we all know it is a story still far too common for thousands of young people of color in America.

As Raymond Santana gave his account of the details from the day in question, we were jarred by his retelling of the abusive and coercive tactics NYPD investigators used to get him to own up to a crime he had nothing to do with. He told us about the language barrier his non-English speaking grandmother faced while at the precinct advocating on his behalf, and how the department’s translators stopped attempting to communicate with her before forcing her to leave him at their mercy.

When he was asked about surviving a sentence that began when he was barely old enough to be considered a teenager, he simply said, “we had to adapt, we had to survive”. He told us that at the beginning of their sentencing, everyone from the local media to the juveniles they occupied space with behind bars, assumed that he and the rest of the five were guilty. It took several acts of self-improvement via educating themselves and displaying general decency to begin to sway the opinion of those they shared bondage with. And had it not been for the eventual confession from the actual perpetrator of the assault on Trisha Meili, there is no certainty that they would have ever been freed.

Both Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana now devote a great amount of time working with the Innocence Project and its core mission of exonerating the wrongly convicted. Both believe in marginalized people occupying all spaces within the legal system in efforts to bring about change. Both, along with their three other counterparts, are still openly healing in front of the world and fighting to alleviate the possibility of anyone else enduring the hell they endured in the most developmental phase of their lives.

I left the discussion with a renewed sense of pride and respect for them that could not be fully captured by a Netflix re-enactment. I am so thankful they survived their worst so that they can now be a vessel for others to not have to.

Photo: Donney Rose