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Korey Wise, who used some of the $14 million he received for being wrongfully convicted of the rape and beating of a woman in Central Park in 1989 to fund the Innocence Project at CU Law, speaks with a student during a campus visit on Sept. 10, 2015. (Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)

In 2015, after spending 13 years in prison for his wrongful conviction in one of America’s most notorious rape cases, Korey Wise made a major contribution to the University of Colorado Law School’s Innocence Project — a financial boost that instantly put more resources at the project’s disposal.

His $190,000 donation made it possible for the Innocence Project, which had been run by a clinical law professor who donated her time, to hire a full-time director and create interactive databases that student investigators use for research.

More recently, the program also benefited from a resurgence of interest in Wise’s case.

After the Innocence Project was mentioned in “When They See Us,” a new Netflix miniseries about the investigation and trial of Wise and four other teens, known as the Central Park 5, accused of the 1989 assault on a jogger in Central Park, the CU project saw an explosion of gifts on the grassroots level. 

Messages of support from around the world poured in to the nonprofit’s Facebook page and the organization, which draws most of its funding from foundations and other large donors, experienced a spike in small, individual donations.

Between the time the miniseries debuted on May 31 and July 1, the CU project received $11,865 donations from 162 individuals, compared with $1,100 in individual donations in the five previous months. The program’s annual budget is less than $150,000, funded mostly through grants and from large donors.

The donations and Facebook posts are representative “of how many people are powerfully moved by this story,” said Anne-Marie Moyes, on March 1 became now the director, lawyer and only full-time staff member for the project. 

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New name, more power to litigate

The Innocence Project, now called the Korey Wise Innocence Project at CU Law, is a chapter of the national Innocence Project and was founded in 2001 by the Colorado Lawyers Committee. 

Wise’s lawyer, Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, was aware of the CU Law project and brought it to her client’s attention. 

It was taken over by CU Law in 2010 and continued to operate as a clearing house for information with student volunteers reviewing applications for help from inmates.

The law students handle administrative details, review transcripts and investigative reports — and, when warranted, connect applicants with lawyers, investigators and others who provide pro bono assistance.

Until Wise made his donation, the project didn’t have a lawyer on staff. Moyes said Wise’s contribution has brought the organization closer to being able to handle litigation in house.

The number of students involved ranges from 20 to 25.

Some Innocence Project chapters, like New York’s, have large full-time staffs and bring their cases to court. “We were never designed to be an organization that does work in house,” Moyes said. 

The Korey Wise Innocence Project, which handles only Colorado cases, now has close to 300 pending cases, a small number culled from the applications that pour into their office. “Our project is overwhelmed by the number of applications we receive. We can only work on a fraction,” Moyes said.

The innocent can find themselves behind bars for a number of reasons. Witnesses, police and prosecutors can make mistakes, representation of the accused can be inadequate and investigations can be tainted by police misconduct.

Investigators often intimidate and wear down suspects in interrogations that result in false confessions, Moyes said.

In 2015, Korey Wise visited Boulder to speak to student volunteers in the Korey Wise Innocence Project at CU Law. He is pictured with his attorney, Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, clinical law professor Ann England and Boulder County Court Judge Kristy Martinez. (Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)

30 years later, not much has changed

In a telephone interview, Wise, 46, said little has changed since 1989 when New York City police detectives coerced false confessions from him and four other teens accused of beating and raping 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who was jogging in Central Park.

“The system don’t give a damn about you, whether they are destroying your life or not,” Wise said in the interview last month. 

Police arrested Wise, then 16, Antron McCray, 15, Kevin Richardson, 14, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Raymond Santana, 14, after Meili was found severely beaten on April 19, 1989, in a wooded area of the park. 

The case inflamed the public, including President Donald Trump, then a powerful New York real estate developer, who called for the state to “bring back the death penalty” soon after the black and Latino teens were arrested.

The Netflix series, directed by Ava DuVernay, depicts harrowing police interrogations of the boys, inquisitions that went on for hours without either parents or lawyers present. 

Investigators lied, exaggerating evidence to suggest it implicated the boys, telling them that others had named them as participants in the crime and promising leniency if they confessed. 

People find it difficult to believe that someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, Moyes said. “It is hard to overturn a conviction without DNA.”

Youngsters and the mentally ill or mentally disabled are most likely to confess to a crime they didn’t commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University law schools. 

Thirty-six percent of 2,400 people who falsely confessed to crimes and were later cleared were under age 18, according to the registry. Sixty-nine percent were mentally ill or were intellectually disabled.

The convictions of the five were overturned after Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist serving a life sentence, confessed in 2001 to being the only one responsible for the attack on Meili. 

DNA taken from the rape kit matched Reyes’ profile. 

Wise, by then the only one of the five still incarcerated, was released. 

In 2014, a federal judge approved a $41 million settlement between the five and the city of New York. Wise received $12.2 million, more than the about $7 million given to each of the others for their false imprisonment because he spent the greatest amount of time in prison.

“He knew he was getting more money than he needed to live a very comfortable life and he would ask about donating to this or that organization,” said his lawyer, Fisher-Byrialsen. “He wanted to help people who had been in his shoes.”

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Questionable interview tactics

Police throughout the country use questioning techniques similar to those that led to the five’s imprisonment. 

“What you see in the case is very typical in terms of false confessions and how they are attained,” Moyes said. “They can start to alter your sense of reality, wear you down and make you believe the outcome will be better if you confess.” 

The Central Park 5 case and others that receive a great deal of media attention result in pressure on police and prosecutors that can lead to hasty investigations. That increases the risk of human error, Moyes said. 

DNA evidence can be destroyed, as it was in the case of Clarence Moses-EL, a Colorado man who spent 28 years in prison after he was convicted of rape in 1987. 

Moses-El was released from prison in 2015 after another man admitted to the rape. He was acquitted in a second trial a year later and sued the city of Denver for compensation for the time he spent behind bars. In March, a federal court judge threw out the complaint, saying Moses-EL had not proved his constitutional rights had been violated.

A $190,000 donation by Korey Wise, one of the Central Park 5 teens wrongfully convicted of a rape and beating in 1989, has helped professionalize the Innocence Project at CU Law. Interest in the project has spiked since Netflix released “When They See Us,” a miniseries about the case. (Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)

Out of prison, but not exactly free

Wise and the other suspects in the attack on Meili served between six and 13 years in prison.

Though free, Wise said, police continued to harass him when he returned to Harlem, arresting him for riding a bike on the sidewalk and other petty offenses.

“They don’t want to help you; they just want you back on welfare,” he said. “You are forever their enemy.”

His adjustment to life outside prison was difficult. 

“I can’t just pop out like a pup out of the womb without any struggles,” he said. “Eighteen years later it is still difficult.”

Wise has made other charitable donations, including to organizations in Harlem, but the  contribution to CU was his largest. 

He now lives not far from the neighborhood in East Harlem where he spent his early years. “I try to still be humble among all this extra attention going on around me,” he said.

“I just continue to be Korey Wise. You respect me, I respect you.”

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @dpmcghee