WINGATE, NC (WBTV) - It was a packed house at George A. Batte Fine Arts Center at Wingate University Monday night.
More than 500 people showed up to hear Kevin Richardson tell his story. He is one of the Central Park 5.
Richardson was 14 years old when police coerced him to lie and confess to brutally raping a jogger. It was 1989 when this happened. Richardson said police interrogated him for hours. He remembers the day and how he was feeling.
“Scared to death,” Richardson said. “Not being involved with police - just seeing police in my neighborhood - I never was hands-on with police brutality or seen it in my environment growing up. But to go through that - not knowing I would ever escape prison or escape the precinct - It was so harsh.”
Richardson said he went along with police thinking that if he did - he would be able to go home. Instead he went to trial and was found guilty - despite the fact DNA found at the crime scene didn’t match any of the five boys - the jury still thought they were responsible.
“When your DNA evidence doesn’t even come out and you still get convicted,” Richardson said. “Something is wrong with the picture - many things was because of the color of my skin. And during that time in the 80s, there was racial tension going on in New York City and across the world.”
Eventually, the person responsible confessed. Richardson has spent about seven years in jail. He and the four others were exonerated in 2002. He says they have not received an apology from the people who were responsible for putting them behind bars.
“We will never receive it,” Richardson said. "And we become so accustomed to that - that we have to move on with our lives now. If we wait for that who knows what will happen.
I asked if he has forgiven the police, prosecutor and all who contributed to his trouble.
“That’s a tough question,” Richardson said. “I’ve learned to move on with my life. You can forgive, but you will never forget what happened to you, because unfortunately there’s a part of me - but because of what I went through, made me the man I am today.”
During his discussion, an audience member asked about his feelings toward President Donald Trump. At the time, Trump took newspaper ads indicating the boys were guilty and the death penalty should be considered. Richardson told the crowd he wouldn’t waste his energy on addressing that, but you could tell he was still emotional over what was done. I also asked what words he had for Linda Fairstein. She was the lead prosecutor.
“God bless you,” Richardson said. “Because you know the truth and hope you are living well within yourself. I hope you can sleep at night knowing what you did.”
Richardson now is using his life to help others. He has devoted his time and energy with The Innocence Project. It’s an initiative that started in 1992. It uses DNA to exonerate people who have been locked up unjustly.
“The inmates will write a letter,” Richardson said. “And sometimes it might not be seen - just thousands of letters people write, but there are some letters that stand out and the attorneys will look deep into it and start investigating the case. And these cases go back 20-30 years, sometimes so it be men and women that’s incarcerated for 10, 20, 30 years.”
While he spends his time working to help others, he says the pain of what he went through has not gone away.
“I try to deal with it as much as possible,” Richardson said. “I have my times when the pain is even harder, but I think what keeps me going is my children, my wife - that’s my safety net.”
He has two daughters. One is almost 2 and the other is 11 years old. She saw the Netflix program “When They See Us.” The miniseries documented what happened to the Central Park 5. He says he let his 11-year-old watch it.
“We had to take a few days,” Richardson said. “She seen what happened to me personally. She sees her dad harassed and beat with a police helmet in the first episode - it was hard for her to grasp that.”
Richardson says he worries about his child growing up. He doesn’t want her to experience what he had to go through. He says there are some police officers who are doing the right thing and trying to make a difference, but he still can’t get over what police did to him.
“I still have that 14-year-old feeling that I can’t trust them,” Richardson said. “That I don’t want to be around them in one room. These things have haunted me since I was young.”
Before the police encounter, Richardson had dreams of continuing to play the trumpet and basketball. He says he wants to get back to the those dreams and at the same time help others.
“I want to be an inspiration to others,” Richardson said. “When kids look at me, they can say I want to be just like him. I can come from the pit of hell and come to glory.”