Korey Wise sits smirking through a one-man play, saying “hmph!” and “ummm” now and then. Youth groups, activists, and college students have packed the auditorium at the National Black Theatre in Harlem. Wise will join a panel after the play on wrongful imprisonment, a subject he knows too well.
In 1989, Wise and four other young black and Latino teenagers were convicted of raping and beating a white investment banker in Central Park, leaving her for dead. The media called her the Central Park Jogger and the accused the Central Park Five. No evidence linked them to the crime except for their confessions, which came after relentless hours of police interrogation. They recanted shortly afterwards, but those statements were still enough to send them all to jail. Wise was 16 and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years as an adult.
Last year, a decade after an inmate named Reyes Matias confessed to the crime, resulting in all five of the boys’ exoneration, Sarah Burns, Ken Burns, and David McMahon released a documentary about their story, “The Central Park Five”. Wise, who went free after 13 years, is now suing the city for wrongful imprisonment.
During the panel, a young man in the audience talks about being imprisoned at Rikers Island at 16. Wise can relate. He sits straightforward, hands clasped, no emotion on his face, almost dazed.
“Wow,” is Wise’s unspoken reaction.
Later, in his Bronx apartment, he compared Rikers Island to another local landmark.
“The Bronx Zoo is dealing with all types of elements,” he says.
Yet he sees Rikers Island as a place rebirth happens, because inmates’ natural instinct and appetite for survival kick in. “There’s no mommy, no daddy,” he says. “Just you.”
Wise’s instincts did kick in one day on Riker’s Island after an altercation with a fellow inmate, Reyes Matias. “Destiny made it his business to come see me,” Wise tells the audience, explaining how the true rapist of the Central Park Jogger confronted him over control of a television.
Thirteen years later, almost five hours away at Auburn Correctional Facility, Wise and Matias met again on the yard where about 10,000 inmates congregated. Matias approached Wise and established that he too had transferred from Rikers Island. When inmates travel from prison to prison, it’s hard to meet new people, so they tend to stick with familiar faces. Matias broke the ice by apologizing for the fight; Wise accepted.
“I see you’re still maintaining your innocence,” Matias said.
“I guess so, yeah,” Wise said.
“Are you religious?”
“Nah, I’m not religious. Why, what’s up?”
“Well, you know, I just became religious.”
“Well, all praises be to the most high for you then.”
The next day in the chapel, Wise got a call from his mom. Inmates summoned to the chapel usually expect to hear about a death in the family, but not Wise.
“I don’t know who you talked to, but whoever you talked to, he freed you,” his mother said.
The white walls and concrete floors in Wise’s Bronx apartment living room are as bare as a prison cell’s. The wind from the open window competes with an accordion heater right beneath the sill. Wise often repeats phrases three to four times before completing a poignant thought. He stands up from the wood framed chair.
Wise takes off his green long-sleeved shirt, points to the scar on his wrist.
“I’m not a 5.”
He lifts his undershirt to show a cut on his abdomen.
“I’m not a 5.”
He pulls his pants down halfway exposing a permanent purple bruise on his upper thigh.
“I’m not a 5,” Wise says, meaning, the Central Park 5.
Wise insists that he’s an individual, more than a part of the group. Out of the five convicted, he was the only one tried and sentenced as an adult because he was 16.
“He spent twice as much time in prison and was in an adult maximum-security facility,” says his lawyer, Jane Byrialsen, with whom he has a developed familial relationship.
“The damage that he sustained from that experience is incomparable,” says Byrialsen, who adds that Wise can be a loner sometimes.
Documentarian Sarah Burns echoes Byrialsen’s sentiments. “The juvenile facilities were no walk in the park but they were not the same thing as where Korey served all of that time,” she says.
Wise has been struggling with maintaining his individuality since this nightmare began years ago. Burns says the media contributed.
“I think part of the problem with that initial coverage in 1989 was that it lumped them all together like they were this wolf pack as the newspaper said,” Burns says.
By the time Matias confessed to the crime in 2002, Wise was 30 and the other four young men had returned home; they only served seven years. “If I had went to Spofford with them it would be none of this. Reyes would still be playing stickball,” he says, meaning Matias would’ve never confessed had they not run into each other.
He still sees his social worker almost once a week but he doesn’t feel the need for a therapist, Byrialsen says. Wise doesn’t work now; he receives a disability check for being partially deaf in his right ear and having post-traumatic stress. He also gets Supplemental Security Income, a program that pays disabled adults who have limited income and resources.
He spends most of his time hanging around his old neighborhood and speaking on behalf of the Innocence Project at events.
He hardly goes anywhere without his Ipod and headphones. Sometimes when Wise is riding on the train he’ll see a poster for the documentary. “I just feel a pain, it hits me,” he says. “That’s why I try to keep my hip hop in my ears.”
But if you ever saw Wise on the streets of Harlem, he would meet you with a big grin and say something like, “I’m good, you know why?” then add, “Cause I’m hip-hop! Hip-hop is me!”
Over the years his lawyer noticed that music helps Wise escapes his pain. “He still listens to 80′s music from when he went in,” says Byrialsen. “It’s like he’s still stuck. It’s like he’s still sort of that 16-year-old kid in a way.”
She hopes that he will soon be able to move on with his life and not be continuously reminded of the past, but her hopes and reality seem farther away than she and Wise would both like.
Wise is suing the city for $50 million in damages for being wrongfully convicted, a case he filed 10 years ago; it could be a year before he sees any closure. Being unemployed has given him time to sit in the courtroom for about 40 depositions. His lawyers and the defense will have to go through 50 more before this summer. During these depositions Wise witnesses the city’s law department present evidence against his case as if they doubt Reyes’ confession should’ve exonerated him. Watching all of these legal arguments doesn’t do much for Wise’s healing, Byrialsen says.
“I think that it’s very hurtful. I think he suffers every day,” she says.
The city’s law department responded with an emailed statement.
“As we’ve said before, the City stands by the decisions made by the detectives and prosecutors,” said Celeste Koeleveld, the executive assistant corporation counsel for public safety.
The confessions, hearings, and trials all presented “abundant probable cause” for the plaintiff’s, conviction, she said.
“Nothing unearthed since the trials, including Matias Reyes’s connection to the attack on the jogger — changes that fact. . . .Under the circumstances, the City is proceeding with a vigorous defense of the detectives and prosecutors,” said Koeleveld.
Byrialsen says the longer this case remains un-settled, the more Wise’s closure is delayed. “The thought that you’ve been exonerated, and you’ve been out all these years and people still think you did it. I don’t think you can ever escape that,” she says.
Since the documentary has aired on national television on PBS, Wise is hoping it would create some type of change in the case. “The city is getting quite fed up with it so I’m hoping for a positive out of it.”
Wise says sharing his story is very therapeutic. Just recently, on the anniversary of the crime, he went to Charlotte, North Carolina for an Innocence Project conference.
In 2002, after being released, Wise changed his first name from Kharey to Korey. Byrialsen says he no longer wants to be associated with all the negative documents that carry his old name. Someone who doesn’t know Korey personally wouldn’t know the hurt he internalizes because over the years, since he’s been released, he has acquired a peaceful persona. But once he starts to unravel, the pain from this experience is exposed like an open wound.
Wise thinks highly of Burns for creating the documentary and giving him the opportunity to share his story. “The doc is beautiful. It hurts to the core,” he says.
Now that the documentary has gained national attention, Wise is happy that the truth is finally out. After it aired on television he got a lot of feedback on Facebook about his strength for taking the punishment for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s also glad that people now recognize the connection between his incarceration and the group’s freedom; a fact he says many people leave out when telling the story. “They give a perspective as if we were together when Reyes woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning in a cold sweat and said ‘let me get this out the way,” he said in a phone conversation.
Even though he feels that others don’t always tell his story correctly, he still is glad that he can continue to speak out against injustice. Almost weekly, he appears through The Innocence Project on panel discussions, rallies, and screenings of the documentary.
Just as he left his old name behind, he speaks about his past self as if he is two different people.
“I love to see little Korey do his thing, cause he done died,” he says meaning prison almost killed his youthful spirit, “and came alive, like, 13 times in 13 years,” he says.
“Little Korey was just looking to have his life. Not have his life torn away from him,” Wise says.
“So when I look at him — as his new representative, his lawyer — I have to give the audience his life, because he’s no longer here to tell it.”