In 1989, arguably the most powerful man in one of the most powerful city’s in the world wanted 15-year-old Yusef Salaam dead. “Bring Back The Death Penalty” read the advertisement taken out by then-real estate mogul Donald Trump in big, bold, black lettering.
There was nothing abstract about that statment. Trump wanted Salaam and the four other boys accused of the Central Park rape dead. And he was willing to use his considerable wealth to do it.
Today, Salaam is not only free, he’s been exonerated. He’s also running unopposed for a city council seat in Harlem, where Salaam will in all likelihood serve as a city-council member. Now, the man who wanted him executed for a crime he didn’t commit, is watching the real estate empire he built unravel in a New York City courtroom as his fraud trial rages on. That’s not to mention his impending criminal trial in New York and the three other criminal trials he faces in other parts of the country.
The Root sat down Salaam for an episode of our new digital politics and show The 411, to discuss Trump, his election, and the state of criminal justice reform.
“I had the opportunity while campaigning to tweet just one word: ‘Karma,’” said Salaam referencing the iconic tweet he sent after Trump’s first indictment. “It got retweeted so many times. It was like wildfire.”
The rush to judgement in Salaam’s case was jarring. He and the four other members of the Exonerated 5, formerly known as The Central Park 5—Yusef Salaam, 16; Antron McCray, 16; Korey Wise, 18; Kevin Richardson, 16; and Raymond Santana, 15—weren’t even convicted when the calls for their death began.
“That ad…was published two weeks after we were accused,” he says. “It wasn’t created two weeks after we were accused. It was in the works massaged and green-lit two weeks after we were accused. ‘Bring back the death penalty’ was the first words that were read.”
Trump was trying to get the same evil forces “to do to us what was done to Emmett Till,” says Salaam.
The criminal justice system failed in Salaam’s case. “I wanted the system to work for me,” he says. “I wanted them to say hold on, we don’t have any DNA evidence. We don’t have any blood. We don’t have nothing. We have four false statements that don’t match anything. And we’re going to play one of the statements at Yusef’s trial because he didn’t say anything that was captured on tape or on paper. And they damned us all for it.”
But in Trump’s case he hopes the system manages to hold the right person accountable. “Karma is real,” says Salaam.