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One of the New York City co-defendants of the so-called “Central Park Five,” whose convictions in a notorious 1989 rape were thrown out more than a decade later, had his own conviction for a related charge overturned on Monday.
Steven Lopez, the sixth person accused in connection with the now-infamous case, appeared in New York State Supreme Court for a Monday afternoon hearing, where he was exonerated in response to requests from both his attorney and prosecutors. The now-48-year-old was arrested decades ago along with five other Black and Latino teenagers in the rape and assault of Trisha Meili, but reached a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty in 1991 to the lesser charge of robbing a male jogger.
He served about three years in prison before being released in the early 1990s.
“Mr. Lopez, we wish you peace and healing,” said Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben upon vacating his conviction. Lopez’s expected exoneration was first reported in The New York Times.
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During the hearing, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told the court Lopez “was charged and pleaded guilty in the face of false statements, unreliable forensic analysis and immense external pressure.”
Bragg said his office’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit worked in collaboration with Lopez and his attorneys. He pointed to two “key issues” that, in part, led the unit to its conclusion.
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First, he said, hair sample collections at the time were unreliable, and there is therefore no physical evidence connecting Lopez to the crime. Second, the statements made by the other men involved in the case have been recanted and, at times, left to other vacated convictions.
“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 wrote. “A conviction based on an unconstitutional plea cannot stand.”
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After the Monday hearing, Lopez’s attorney, Eric Renfroe, told reporters he could not “imagine having gone through this.”
“I think that he’s tremendously strong for having endured it,” Renfroe said. “So, I’m sure that he’s feeling a range of emotions. But I’m hoping today, at the very least, vindicated, because I think that there were a lot of awful things that were said about him that I know were not true at the time that they were said, and they are not true today.”
He said he would not immediately speak about any future efforts to seek financial restitution on behalf of his client.
The assault on Meili, a 28-year-old White investment banker who was in a coma for 12 days after the attack, was considered emblematic of New York City’s lawlessness in an era when the city recorded 2,000 murders a year.
Five teenagers were convicted in the attack on Meili and served six to 13 years in prison. Their convictions were overturned in 2002 after evidence linked a convicted serial rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, to the attack.
Prosecutors who reviewed the case had concluded that the teens’ confessions, made after hours of interrogations, were deeply flawed.
“A comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies,” they wrote in court papers at the time. “The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime.”
The Central Park Five, now known as the “Exonerated Five,” went on to win a $40 million settlement from the city and inspire books, movies and television shows.
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Lopez has not received a settlement, and his case had been nearly forgotten in the years since he pleaded guilty to robbery in 1991 to avoid the more serious rape charge.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.