US election 2016: Trump and his Central Park Five defiance

By Jessica Lussenhop
BBC News

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The weekend's revelations about Donald Trump's sexually aggressive boasts overshadowed comments he made last week about the 1989 Central Park Five case. This deserves more attention.

Last week, just before the explosive 'hot mic' tape upheaved the Republican nominee's campaign, Mr Trump told CNN he still believes the Central Park Five are guilty, despite DNA evidence.

"They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous," he said in a statement to the network.

The Central Park Five were five teenagers, aged 15 to 18, who were arrested and convicted in the 1989 beating and rape of a 28-year-old female jogger in Central Park, New York City.

The woman, Trisha Meili, nearly died of her injuries and remained in a coma for 12 days. The teenagers were black or Hispanic. Meili was white.

The heinous attack was committed while New York City was in the throes of a crack epidemic and the number of homicides were reaching all-time highs.

In this climate, and in response to the attack, Donald Trump - then known only as the flashy real estate developer who had just purchased the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City - took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers.

"Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!" the ad read.

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image captionDonald Trump in 1989

"I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyse or understand them, I am looking to punish them," he continued.

"Civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins!"

Then, in 2002, a new investigation revealed that serial rapist and convicted murderer Matias Reyes had actually committed the crime.

He confessed he had acted alone. DNA evidence confirmed his account.

The Central Park Five were all freed after serving between six and 13 years in prison. The city paid them a $40m (£24m) settlement.

They told harrowing tales of their time in police custody and behind bars.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump has never apologised for his ads or acknowledged the existence of the true perpetrator.

To this day, he insists the Central Park Five are guilty.

Soon after Mr Trump made the statement to CNN, the Washington Post broke the story of the Republican nominee bragging as he filmed a 2005 segment for Access Hollywood that he could grab women's genitals.

In the ensuing uproar, the Central Park Five comments were lost.

With them went an opportunity to carefully examine why Mr Trump refuses to accept the exonerations of the five men, and what implications that has for a Trump presidency.

There were no questions about it at the Sunday debate.

However, many prominent observers want the moment marked.

"Apparently Mr Trump is unfamiliar with the concept of wrongful conviction," tweeted documentarian Ken Burns, who made a critically acclaimed film about the bungled investigation and prosecution of the five boys.

"He should be apologising for calling for their death, not claiming they're guilty," tweeted California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. "This is not 'law and order'."

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image captionKevin Richardson, one of the five men wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in 1989, speaks after a city settlement in 2014

Some, like the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, called Mr Trump's stance blatantly racist.

"For young African American and Latino men, Trump has a clear and ominous message: You must be guilty of something. Not even scientific proof can convince him otherwise," Robinson wrote.

"If that is not racism, the word has no meaning."

Mr Trump's refusal to acknowledge his mistake is even more puzzling given that there is nothing particularly partisan to dig into here.

Both Republicans and Democrats say that the country is in need of criminal justice reform, and the existence of false confessions has been proven time and time again through DNA evidence.

It seems that as the "law and order" candidate, Mr Trump believes there can be no acknowledgment of past mistakes.

As Vox's Victoria Massie writes, "by refusing to recognise when the law has wronged citizens, he sets a dangerous message that justice is not necessary to maintain social order".

This is also the candidate who praised the New York City Police Department's use of stop-and-frisk policing, a technique that a judge deemed unconstitutional because a disproportionate number of those who were stopped were black and Hispanic.

The data shows that the policy was largely ineffective.

And yet, it's the main policy Mr Trump cites when asked how he will improve life for black Americans in the US.

On Friday, several members of the Central Park Five went public with statements of their own, condemning Mr Trump's remarks.

"He's gotten worse," Yusef Salaam told Mother Jones. "He believes in everything he's put out there."

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image captionYusef Salaam (shown in 1990), was one of five black or Hispanic youths wrongfully convicted in the racially charged case

As Republicans fled the Trump campaign in droves on Saturday, only Senator John McCain acknowledged Mr Trump's "outrageous statements about the innocent men in the Central Park Five" case.

Mr McCain used a word for the defendants that Mr Trump never has: "innocent".