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Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg talks about exonerating 6th member of 1989 Central Park case

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

They were originally called the Central Park Five, five Black and Latino teenagers between 14 and 16 years old convicted for the rape and assault of a white woman in New York City back in 1989. They're now often called the Exonerated Five because even though they all spent years in prison, they were innocent and were eventually freed as new evidence came to light. Well, there was actually a sixth teenage defendant forgotten in much of the history. He, too, went to jail but struck a plea deal to a lesser charge. His name is Steven Lopez, and today Manhattan's district attorney moved to vacate his conviction. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg joins us now live from Manhattan. Welcome.

ALVIN BRAGG: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So what Steven Lopez did plead guilty to was a robbery charge involving a male jogger. I want to start just by - to be clear, does your office believe he is not guilty, never was of that charge?

BRAGG: Well, certainly, as a matter of law, as you said, you know, his indictment was vacated. And so he's certainly, like the rest of us, presumed innocent, as I said in court today. You know, and you just framed the history so well. Like the other five before him, here we had - there had been some hair comparisons that were done that now has been shown to be a kind of faulty analysis. So there's no physical evidence, no...

KELLY: Hair comparison - so DNA evidence that's come to light. Yeah.

BRAGG: Exactly. And there's no - so there's no physical evidence tying him to the charge conduct. And then as with the other five as well, you know, the crux of the case were statements all given by, you know, very young men - boys, in fact - that have, you know, since been recanted and certainly shouldn't form the basis. So that was the evidence. And that evidence has now all certainly, I think, been rightly questioned. And that's where we are today. And that's why we went to court.

KELLY: Right. So why - and I - this is to the best of your knowledge because I know you only took over as Manhattan D.A. earlier this year. But why was his case not vacated years ago, when the other five were?

BRAGG: You know, you're right that I do not know the answer to that. I'm going to do what lawyers should seldom do, which is speculate a little bit. And that is just that, you know, procedurally, the posture was different in that the other went to trial and were convicted by juries. And Mr. Lopez, as you said, albeit to a different charge - but his conviction was by plea. And so...

KELLY: Yeah.

BRAGG: That may have been why it was - went down a different track. I don't know, though.

KELLY: And I gather this came back in front of your office due to Mr. Lopez himself, that he reintroduced himself to your office last year...

BRAGG: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Announced that his conviction be reviewed. And it's brought us to where we are today.

BRAGG: Exactly.

KELLY: You know, I was looking, sir, at your bio. You would have been a teenager yourself, a Black kid growing up in New York City when the Central Park Five rape happened. Does it feel personal to you to throw out this conviction on your watch?

BRAGG: Well, you know, first and foremost, it's mostly about, you know, Mr. Lopez, right? He's the one who was wrongfully convicted and served time in jail. But certainly it is not lost on me and does touch me that I'm, you know, about the same age as all six and as Mr. Lopez and someone who grew up not far from Central Park. In fact, I had to pass Central Park every day going from my home to school and went in Central Park to do things that kids would do, like play basketball. And that's not lost on me at all. And in fact, I think for a generation of us kind of - we grew up in the shadow of this case. And so that is not lost on me. And I think it's a significant moment for certainly my office, certainly for Mr. Lopez but also more broadly for these reasons.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I hear you saying this is all about Mr. Lopez today, and that's absolutely right. But it sounds like you see a different story there, a bigger story about racism and teenagers of color in the criminal justice system.

BRAGG: The backdrop of this is significant, you know, for the history of the office - you know, Mr. Morgenthau before me, you know, moving to vacate and the court vacating the convictions of the other five. You know, the impact of what a wrongful conviction - any conviction but certainly a wrongful conviction on one's employment, one's housing, one's family relationships - yes, these are all profound issues that are bound up in our criminal justice system that I think are underscored and illustrated by this matter.

KELLY: Yeah. To bring it back to Steven Lopez, he did serve prison time like the other five. Unlike the other five, he did not receive any settlement money. They were awarded $41 million back in 2014. Mr. Lopez is now 48. Is there anything you would like to say to him today?

BRAGG: Well, you know, he was in court and conveyed to him and his lawyer first the appreciation for this collaborative process, the way we review these matters here, that his office is a collaborative, open process and engaging in that with them, doing it in good faith was how we got, in part, to this day. And then, of course, to acknowledge, you know, the harm that flowed from the convictions years ago and some of the collateral consequences I just mentioned generally, I think - I don't know but I think apply here as well. So I had an opportunity to address his counsel and to be with him in court today. And so I conveyed just, you know, an understanding to the extent I can of the profound impact that something like this has on one's life.

KELLY: Did you have the chance to speak to him directly?

BRAGG: You know, I shook his hand as he left court. I generally do not to speak directly to people who are represented by counsel without them, as I can't and should not. But I did shake his hand, had an opportunity to say things, you know, publicly that, you know, were about this and then did have an opportunity to really speak with his lawyer. And his lawyer spoke very eloquently on the record. And obviously, he's gotten to know Mr. Lopez based on that relationship as he was able to say some things on the record that were quite personal. And, you know, I heard them, and I think it was publicly expressed. And I did have an opportunity to the extent that was, you know, permitted.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, there's obviously nothing that compensates someone for losing years of their life to prison for a crime that they did not commit. But to the bigger question of - does it feel like justice has now been served at some level?

BRAGG: Yes. I mean, I think - and I thank the court for the court's - you know, we made the motion, but the court took, you know, review and grant the motion. And I think that, yes, this was a day where justice was served. And importantly, I think we're right to both focus on Mr. Lopez but by extension for the greater public, right? When something like this happens, I think we think, as we should, first about the person whose conviction's being vacated. I think we should also be thinking when we do this about - you know, it often means that someone else was not held accountable who should have been. Here, that person stepped forward years ago and is incarcerated. But we also should be talking about what it means for faith in our system. I've been a prosecutor for 20 years, and we need witnesses and victims to have trust and faith in the system. And I think an action like today's advances that trust that we need to safeguard public safety.

KELLY: Alvin Bragg, thank you.

BRAGG: Thank you.

KELLY: That is Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office has moved to overturn the conviction of a sixth man, Steven Lopez, related to an infamous 1989 rape in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Gus Contreras