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An exonerated 'Central Park Five' member will win a seat on the New York City Council

Exonerated "Central Park Five" member Yusef Salaam is poised to win a seat Tuesday on the New York City Council, marking a stunning reversal of fortune for a political newcomer who was wrongly imprisoned as a teenager in the infamous rape case.

Salaam, a Democrat, will represent a central Harlem district on the City Council, having run unopposed for the seat in one of many local elections playing out across New York state on Tuesday. He won his primary election in a landslide.

The victory will come more than two decades after DNA evidence was used to overturn the convictions of Salaam and four other Black and Latino men in the 1989 rape and beating of a white jogger in Central Park. Salaam was imprisoned for almost seven years.

"For me, this means that we can really become our ancestors' wildest dreams," Salaam said in an interview before the election.

Salaam's candidacy is a reminder of what the war on crime can look like when it goes too far.

Salaam was just 15 years old when he was arrested along with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise and accused of attacking a woman running in Central Park.

The crime dominated headlines in the city, inflaming racial tensions as police rounded up Black and Latino men and boys for interrogation. Former President Donald Trump, then just a brash real estate executive in the city, took out large ads in newspapers that implored New York to bring back the death penalty.

The teens convicted in the attack served between five and 12 years in prison before the case was reexamined.

A serial rapist and murderer was eventually linked to the crime through DNA evidence and a confession. The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated in 2002 and they received a combined $41 million settlement from the city.

Salaam campaigned on easing poverty and combatting gentrification in Harlem. He often mentioned his conviction and imprisonment on the trail — his place as a symbol of injustice helping to animate the overwhelmingly Black district and propel him to victory.

"I am really the ambassador for everyone's pain," he said. "In many ways, I went through that for our people so I can now lead them."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press