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Op-Ed

When I was on trial as one of the Central Park Five, Donald Trump didn’t care that I might be innocent. And I was.

In President Trump’s instantly infamous Tuesday news conference at Trump Tower, he blasted critics of his slow, equivocating response to deadly events in Charlottesville by furiously insisting that one reason for the delay in issuing a statement about the tragedy was that, “You don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts.

And it’s a very, very important process to me and it’s an important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly, and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.” He’s got a point: When someone is accused of a crime, or of inciting the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville recently, we should gather the facts and carefully evaluate them before rushing to lay blame.

WATCH VIDEO: Donald Trump talks about the Central Park 5

But here’s the thing: I’m one of the Central Park Five. When we were falsely accused of sexual assault, Trump had no qualms about jumping to conclusions.

In 1990, my co-defendants and I were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned after being charged for the brutal and tragic beating and rape of 28-year-old Trisha Meili, known then as the Central Park Jogger, in 1989.

As I wrote last year: “When we were arrested, the police deprived us of food, drink, and sleep for more than 24 hours.” Under duress, false confessions were made. “Though we were innocent, we spent our formative years in prison, branded as rapists. During our trial, it seemed like every New Yorker had an opinion. But no one took it further than Trump. He called for blood in the most public way possible. Trump used his money to take out full-page ads in all of the city’s major newspapers, urging the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York.”

We spent, respectively, between seven and 13 years in prison, until exculpatory DNA evidence emerged and another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to committing that terrible crime, and our convictions were overturned. We sued the city of New York for police and prosecutorial misconduct and settled the case in 2014. In the years since, I’ve done my best to move on.

But last week, when I heard Trump adamantly, almost angrily, scold reporters with, “You still don’t know all the facts,” I could hardly believe his hypocrisy. Even for someone as fact-challenged as Trump, this was too much. When we were on trial for our freedom, as children, trying desperately to clear our names, he — a private citizen at the time — took it upon himself to poison public opinion, demanding the harshest punishment possible, even though he didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, the facts.

We weren’t named in the ads, but, “Muggers and murders,” it read, “should be forced to suffer and when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” As one report notes, “He didn’t refer to the teenagers by name,” but given the timing, “It was clear to anyone in the city” that he was referring to us. He never acknowledged his rush to judgment, and last year when asked about us, he still stuck to the line that “They admitted they were guilty” and “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty.”

Never mind that we weren’t.

Trump is many things. A narcissist, a bigot, a questionable businessman and, so far, a terrible president. I know one thing firsthand. He is perfectly capable of spouting off before he has all the facts.

Yusef Salaam is a motivational speaker based in Atlanta.

The Washington Post

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