Director Ava DuVernay partnered with Netflix to create the harrowing mini-series When They See Us, a dramatization of the true story of the 1989 Central Park jogger case that led to the wrongful conviction of five boys of color: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana. Netflix released the trailer for the miniseries on April 19, 2019, exactly 30 years after the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili in Central Park, with all episodes released online at the end of May.
For some younger viewers, When They See Us may be an introduction to the Central Park Five, but in 1989, their trial shook the nation. Then, in 2002, their acquittal once again brought them into the national spotlight, and proving definitively that they were victims of wrongful conviction and demonstrating the institutional racism of the NYPD and American legal system. DuVernay's story largely follows the accounts of the Central Park Five, and while this may conflict with other narratives, the "Exonerated Five" have been proven to be telling the truth about their innocence. The five, now grown men, have all given their support to When They See Us and even walked the red carpet for the Netflix production.
While When They See Us is inspired by the true story of the Central Park Five, DuVernay's dramatization takes some creative liberties out of necessity, filling in the narrative and taking viewers into private spaces. The various smaller events and interactions in the film aren't always verified by multiple historical sources, but it's important to understand the real events that led to five boys of color being convicted and ultimately becoming the Central Park Five in 1989, and later the Exonerated Five in 2012.
What Happened on April 19, 1989?
On the night of April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili, a Caucasian woman, was jogging through Central Park when she was assaulted, raped, and left for dead. Her skull had been fractured in two places, and she had lost most of her blood. Initially, doctors believed she would die; however, after 12 days of being in a coma, Meili recovered, but without any memories of the incident. She also suffered minor brain damage as a result of the attack, which affects her sense of smell, vision, and balance.
Matias Reyes would later confess to the crime, and his confession would be verified with DNA evidence from a rape kit. However, at the time, the police rounded up boys and young men who had been in Central Park that evening. They arrested a group of teenagers, including Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, and later brought in Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. The boys were all between the ages of 14 and 16. A sixth boy was initially also the subject of the police investigation, but plead guilty to lesser charges.
False Confessions and Media Frenzy
In police custody, after being held for approximately 24 hours, four of the five boys confessed to being an accessory to rape. Some also confessed to other minor crimes that happened in the park that night, unrelated to the assault of the jogger. They also accused some of the other boys of either assaulting or raping the woman. The information that the boys provided in their confessions didn't match details about the victim or the crime scene, indicative of a false confession. While Yusef Salaam admitted to being involved in police custody, he refused to confess in writing or on video, even though he was implicated by the others.
While the parents of the boys were present for their video confessions, they weren't present for the entirety of the boys' time in police custody, much of which was never recorded. The Central Park Five claimed that their confessions were coerced, including the police intimidating them, threatening them, and lying to them. The police didn't withhold the boys' names, pictures, and addresses from the media, even though they were minors. The resulting media frenzy condemned them in the court of public opinion before they were ever on trial. Donald Trump, then a New York real estate mogul, bought full page advertisements in the New York Times calling for the return of the death penalty. Trump also gave TV interviews in which he called for harsh and corporal punishment against the accused juveniles.
The Trial and Conviction
The Central Park Five's defense team wanted the confessions - the only evidence that the police had linking the boys to the assault - to be dismissed. When a DNA comparison was made between the five boys and the rape kit, it came back as negative. The prosecution described the results as "inconclusive" rather than evidence of innocence.
In August 1990, Antron McCray (age 15), Yusef Salaam (age 15), and Raymond Santana (age 14) were found guilty of assault, rape, robbery, and rioting. They were each sentenced to five to 10 years in a juvenile corrections facility. In December of that year, Kevin Richardson (age 14) and Korey Wise (age 16) went on trial. The prosecutor stated that hairs matching the victim's were found in Richardson's underwear, making the jury believe that there was physical evidence linking Richardson and Wise to the crime.
The hairs that were found, however, were later revealed to not be a DNA match to the victim. Richardson was found guilty of attempted murder, rape, assault, and robbery, and sentenced to five to 10 years in a juvenile corrections facility. Wise was found guilty of assault, sexual abuse, and rioting, and was sentenced to five to 15 years.
Central Park Five's Exoneration
Thirteen years after the Central Park Five were convicted, they had each served between six and 13 years in prison. There, Korey Wise met Matias Reyes, who had been convicted of unrelated rape and murder charges. In 2002, Reyes expressed regret that Wise was in prison for a crime that he had committed. Reyes confessed to raping Trisha Meili, providing details about the crime scene that presumably only the perpetrator could know. Additionally, his DNA matched the rape kit, and several elements of Meili's assault matched Reyes's modus operandi from other crimes.
Robert M. Morgenthau, then the District Attorney of Manhattan, concluded that Reyes was guilty and that the Central Park Five should be vacated of all convictions. Despite resistance from the NYPD and the original prosecution, New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada agreed to vacate the convictions. Every one of the Central Park Five had already served the entirety of their sentences at this time, but they were exonerated and removed from the sex offender registry.
The "Exonerated Five" were cleared of all crimes. In 2003, they attempted to sue New York City for their wrongful conviction and the emotional damage it caused them. Mayor Bloomberg refused to settle the case. After the documentary The Central Park Five shed light on their story in 2012, though, mayor-candidate Bill de Blasio pledged to settle with them if he was elected mayor. Then, as Mayor of New York City, De Blasio ultimately settled with the Exonerated Five for $41 million. Additionally, each member of the Exonerated Five was given approximately $1 million for each year they spent in prison. However, the NYPD and New York City never admitted to any wrongdoing.