‘Central Park Five’ member tells why he is a ‘voice for voiceless’

Economic Club hosts speaker who was wrongly imprisoned in notorious rape case


WEDNESDAY, Feb. 14 — When he was 14 years old, Kevin Richardson was sent to prison for seven years after he was wrongfully charged and convicted of the 1989 assault and rape of Trisha Meili in New York City’s Central Park.

He “never thought that after the night I left my house, I would not return until seven years later,” Richardson said today at the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce’s February Economic Club luncheon.

Richardson, 49, was the youngest of five teenagers who shared the same fate, then known as the “Central Park Five.” Richardson was released from prison in 1997 but served three years’ probation afterward and was required to register as a sex offender.

The charges stuck with him until 2002, a year after someone else confessed to the crime. In December that year, the New York Supreme Court vacated the men’s convictions. They won a $41 million lawsuit in 2014.

Since his release, Richardson has become an advocate for criminal justice reform, partnering with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

He spoke about his life and work at today’s chamber event at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing. It was held in partnership with the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan. After lunch was served, he sat for a forum moderated by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kyra Harris Bolden, the first Black woman to serve in that position after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed her in 2023.

First, Bolden asked him to recall his experience on April 19, 1989.

Richardson explained how he’d lived near Central Park with his mother then and went there to play basketball with his friends that night. At some point, he said, he needed to start heading back home to meet the curfew his mother had set for him. That was when two police officers approached him.

“I'm going to dig deep. I’m going to use the language that was used to me,” Richardson said. “He told me: ‘Stop, you little nigger.’ And when that happened in Harlem, people didn’t even do anything because they were so afraid of the police. I ran anyway, despite being innocent. I remember being attacked and knocked unconscious.”

Richardson woke up as a detainee and would later be charged and sent to youth prison. When he turned 18, he was transferred to an adult facility.

“There, I became a number, not even a man. My number was 9587047. That means in 1995, when I was in adult prison, I was the 7,047th person that was arrested that year. And out of those 7,047 people, there are so many that are innocent,” Richardson said. “That's what makes me driven to become a voice for the voiceless. There are so many people that don't have that. So, it’s important for me to have this platform to raise awareness — to unmute the uncomfortable.”

Now, he works toward criminal justice reform, advocating particularly in cases where minors have been wrongfully imprisoned.

“I was once that shy kid. I’d sit in the back of the class. I was very intelligent, but I was scared to speak. One favor that the justice system did for us, my brothers, is that they woke up sleeping giants. Because now, we won’t shut up,” he said of his advocacy.

Another issue he’s passionate about is providing more support for those who leave the prison system.

“I came home in 1997. Now, I'm thrown back into a society that I felt didn't want me. I was scared for my life, frankly,” he said.

Richardson’s story later became the subject of a Netflix mini-series titled “When They See Us,” which was co-produced by Oprah and released in 2019. He’s also the namesake of Syracuse University’s “Our Time Has Come” Kevin Richardson Scholarship, established in 2019 to provide funding for students of color.

By telling his story, Richardson said he hopes to inspire others to know their rights better and inspire positive change for prisoners before and after serving their sentence. In that way, he said, “unmuting the uncomfortable” can bring these issues to the forefront and, ideally, inspire future activists.

In her final question, Bolden asked if he had any messages to offer the crowd.

“One message is, please, watch 'When They See Us.' Also, everyone doesn’t have to be an activist to be active. Find your lane and what you're good at, and let's make change,” Richardson said.


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