A sixth man who was a co-defendant of the Central Park Five – a group of Black and Hispanic teens who were convicted of beating and raping a woman in the famed New York City landmark – had his conviction overturned on Monday, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
The other five teens convicted in the 1989 attack had previously been exonerated. Steven Lopez, who was 15 years old at the time, was among the teens arrested in connection with the brutal attack.
Lopez was indicted for both the rape and the robbery of a man jogging through the park but accepted a deal where he only pleaded guilty to the robbery, according to a motion filed by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg.
Lopez spent almost four years in prison, according to his attorney Eric Shapiro Renfroe.
“Mr. Lopez was charged and pleaded guilty in the face of false statements, unreliable forensic analysis and immense external pressure,” Bragg said at Monday’s hearing.
Bragg laid out the reasons for vacating the conviction, which included no physical evidence connecting Lopez to either the rape or the robbery and that statements made by others placing the blame on Lopez have since been recanted.
“All of the factors taken together – as set forth in our motion papers – show what the people believe are unique circumstances, combined with Mr. Lopez’s youth, made his plea involuntary – and therefore unconstitutional,” Bragg said. “A conviction based on an unconstitutional plea cannot stand.”
Lopez’s exoneration comes almost 20 years after the Central Park Five were found innocent in 2002. He appeared in court for the exoneration just after 2 p.m., flanked by his attorney.
“Mr. Lopez, I wish you peace and healing,” said Judge Ellen Biben. With tears in his eyes, Lopez said simply, “Thank you,” before shaking hands with his attorney, the DA and leaving the courtroom.
Lopez was arrested on April 19, 1989, in connection to a series of assaults in Central Park that night, most notably of a White man jogging and a 28-year-old White woman, also a jogger, found beaten and unconscious after a brutal rape in the park.
Almost 20 hours later, Lopez was taken to an interrogation room where detectives pressed him for details connected to both the rape and robbery, according to the motion filed by Bragg.
Lopez, who is now 48, never admitted to being involved in the rape of the woman. His father, who only spoke a few words in English, and his mother, who spoke no English, were present for the interrogation, according to the motion. There was no video surveillance or physical evidence related to the attack on the male jogger and the male jogger never identified Lopez as one of his attackers, the motion said.
Lopez and his father signed a written confession that was prepared for him by investigators.
Lopez, who was indicted on both the rape of the female jogger and robbery of the male jogger, was offered a last minute deal by prosecutors: plead guilty to the robbery in the first degree and they would drop the rape charge, according to the motion. Lopez agreed.
The sensational case became emblematic of rampant lawlessness in the city and heightened racial tensions.
In early February 2002, more than 10 years after Lopez’s conviction, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, confessed to being the sole attacker in the Central Park case. DNA evidence confirmed his account.
The Central Park Five were exonerated, and in 2014, New York paid them a $41 million settlement.
Lopez contacted the Manhattan DA’s office in 2021, looking to get his conviction overturned. The office, under former DA Cy Vance, started working on the case, which Bragg continued. This is Bragg’s first exoneration since taking the helm in January, according to a spokesperson for the DA.
“I believe what happened to you was an American tragedy,” said Renfroe, Lopez’s attorney. “It’s truly unbelievable to see how the system failed you,” he added.
After the hearing, Renfroe said his client – who left the courtroom – was feeling a range of emotions.
“I’m hoping today, at the very least, (Lopez feels) vindicated,” he said. “I think there were a lot of awful things that were said about him that I know were not true at the time they were said.”