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On a High Note

A conversation with criminal justice reform advocate and honorary music degree recipient.

Portrait of Kevin Richardson with the block S behind him.

Syracuse University presented Kevin Richardson, a member of the Exonerated Five, with the first honorary undergraduate degree conferred in University history, and created a scholarship in his honor.

As a teen growing up in Harlem, Kevin Richardson H’20, a member of the Exonerated Five, dreamed of attending Syracuse University and playing trumpet in the marching band.

But before that dream could be realized, Richardson was persecuted in a travesty of justice: When he was just 14 years old, he and four other teenagers were wrongly convicted in the much-publicized “Central Park jogger case.” Richardson served seven years and lived under the shadow of this injustice until DNA evidence proved the innocence of all five young men.

Since his exoneration, Richardson has become an acclaimed advocate for criminal justice reform. In honor of his exceptional work—and as a tribute to his childhood aspirations—the University established the Our Time Has Come Kevin Richardson Scholarship and presented Richardson with an honorary bachelor of fine arts in music at the 2020 Commencement ceremony—the first honorary undergraduate degree conferred in University history.

We recently had the opportunity to connect with Richardson and ask him about these accomplishments.

How does it feel to at last have a degree from Syracuse University?

When I heard my name called at Commencement, it brought up emotions going back to when I was a kid and wanted to attend Syracuse, and to when that dream was taken from me. Now to have come full circle—after all that unfolded—is a real blessing. It was an amazing feeling and my emotions poured out. It was very tearful, but it was a beautiful day.

What inspired your love for the University?

I grew up in the ’80s and was a big fan of basketball and the Big East, when it was the Big East with Syracuse and other great basketball teams. Also, my love for the trumpet—I loved music and loved orange and blue. I was always a big fan of Syracuse—it was always in my blood. I was Orange before I was even labeled that way!

Kevin Richardson and Adrian Autry standing near a podium. Kevin is holding a Syracuse University basketball jersey with the number 44 on it.

When longtime Orange fan Richardson visited Syracuse University in 2019, men’s basketball associate head coach and former player Adrian Autry ’94 gave him a personalized basketball jersey.

How do you find joy after everything you went through?

What brings me joy in life, first and foremost, is my faith. God was always there for me, my family, my kids, my parents, my wife, my siblings—everybody who was there in my corner. Having been in the position I was, and to come out of it—that alone is a blessing. I know that life is extremely short, and I am resilient. Resilience is a big word in my household. We know we have to be resilient in these trying times.

How has your life changed since the 2019 premiere of the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which explores the circumstances leading to the wrongful arrests and convictions of the five of you?

Since When They See Us came out, my life has changed drastically. Even though I’m “Kevin Richardson from the Exonerated Five,” I’m an extremely low-key person. But it feels OK to use this celebrity status I have now because it’s being used for the right reasons. Also, I’ve been blessed to rub shoulders and meet some very influential people in my life, and it means a lot to know that they look up to me just as much as I do them—that we have mutual respect for one another.

Portrait of Kevin Richardson holding an award and standing with eight other people.

Syracuse University's Office of Multicultural Advancement presented Richardson with an award recognizing his courage and community service.

Silver or brass trumpet?

Whoa! That’s a very tough question. You know, I have a love for both. I was blessed when the University gifted me a silver trumpet, which is beautiful, but you can’t go wrong with either one. I’m such a fan of music and I can’t wait to get back on campus because I really do want to take classes. It’s been a while, but you never forget. I just can’t wait. It’s wonderful to even be playing music again.

Tell us about the Our Time Has Come Kevin Richardson Scholarship.

The scholarship helps underrepresented students so they can come to Syracuse University. It helps people who may have had tough beginnings and don’t have the necessary financial means, and may need some mentorship to help them get through. This is a blessing, to be able to offer this scholarship.

Jonah Restuccio, Sarah H. Griffin

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • Office of Multicultural Advancement

    Building dreams and celebrating success. Serving underrepresented students and alumni of Syracuse University.

  • College of Visual and Performing Arts

    Home to the visual and performing arts at Syracuse, VPA supports the creative process and professional development. The College is divided into six areas: the School of Art; the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies; the School of Design; the Department of Drama; the Rose, Jules R. and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music; and the Department of Transmedia.