“They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance. They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor… their minds teeming with violent images of the streets and the movies. They had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”
That’s what legendary journalist, Pete Hamill wrote in the Post in 1989 about five young boys — four Black and one Hispanic — that would become known as the Central Park Five.
Netflix’s highly anticipated four-part miniseries When They See Us, which was created and directed by Ava DuVernay, retells what happened that fateful night. But DuVernay’s telling focuses on more than just the case. It’s about the boys themselves, the racially-biased justice system, and the man who called for their heads.
Most of us were too young or weren’t even born when the case happened. But in our current political climate, it’s imperative that everyone sits and watch this series about the case that shook New York City and the nation to its core. Because if we don’t know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it.
In 1989, Kevin Richardson (15), Raymond Santana (14), Antron McCray (15), Yusef Salaam (15), and Korey Wise (16) were arrested after a string of attacks occurred in Central Park.
One such attack was on 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who had been raped and nearly beaten to death.
When Trisha was found in the park, her head had been smashed and she was naked, tied up, gagged, and covered in blood. She wasn’t expected to live, but miraculously, she awoke from a coma after twelve days in the hospital.
Two of the boys, Santana and Richardson, were brought in by the police first, along with a group of other teens that were believed to be connected to other attacks in the park. Salaam, Wise, and McCray were subsequently brought in for questioning on April 20, 1989, after a group of other teenagers arrested (not part of the Central Park Five) named them to the police.
Each of the boys confessed to other attacks that occurred in the park, but none of them admitted to raping Meili.
The boys were questioned for 48 hours, without their parents, and without food and rest. The police told them that they could go home as long as they cooperated. There were inconsistencies in their retelling of the incident. But, after hours of police interrogation that went unrecorded, the boys eventually confessed to the rape.
Santana, Richardson, Wise, and McCray made video statements about the attack. Salaam refused to sign or record a confession. However, his verbal admissions were added into testimony.
The boys later admitted they were coerced into giving false confessions. Salaam came forward and said that the only reason he confessed was because the police claimed that they found his fingerprints on the victim (a lie). Salaam told The Guardian,
“I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room. They would come and look at me and say, ‘You realize you’re next?’ The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out.”
According to The Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people, false confessions are a lot more common than you might think.
Their website states that some of the factors that lead to coerced false confessions include: the lying about the presence of incriminating evidence by the police; the use of physical force used by the police during interrogation; the compromised reasoning ability of the suspect after they’ve been exhausted, stressed, and starved by the police; and the advantage taken against young people who may not understand their rights.
It should be noted that all of these tactics were used against the boys while they were questioned by police.
In addition to the extremely questionable interrogation techniques used by the police in order to get a conviction, there was also a growing demand by the public to get justice for Trisha, particularly among Upper-class New Yorks.
And the leader behind all of this? Our very own Donald Trump.
It’s unknown as to why Trump felt the need to insert himself in a situation that had nothing to do with him. But, ten days after the attack, Trump paid $85,000 to four of the city’s most popular newspapers to take out a full-page ad. The title read:
“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE.”
He believed that the criminal justice system wasn’t harsh enough on offenders. He said,
“Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them… I want them to be afraid.”
With Trump’s influence, the public had already made up their minds about the boys.
Four savage Black boys and a Hispanic kid raping a white woman? Of course, they were guilty.
It didn’t matter that there was a lack of any evidence linking the boys to the crime. Or that all of the confessions were coerced. All that mattered was that the city could claim that they “had gotten justice” for Trisha.
In August of 1990, three of the boys — Salaam, McCray, and Santana — were found guilty of rape, assault, robbery, and rioting. They were sentenced to 5-10 years at a juvenile detention center.
In December of 1990, Richardson was also sentenced to 5-10 years and was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy and robbery.
Santana, Richardson, Salaam, and McCray were released after serving 5-7 years. However, once they got out, they had to register as sex offenders, a branding which hindered their job opportunities and followed them around for life. Raymond Santana even would end up back in jail after turning to drug dealing to make ends meet.
Wise, at only 16-years-old, was the only one out of the five to be tried as an adult. He was convicted of sexual abuse, assault, and rioting. He received a sentence of 5-15 years and was taken to New York’s most notorious prison, Rikers Island. From Rikers, he was eventually moved to the Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn New York where spent the majority of his twelve-year sentence in solitary confinement.
But it was at Auburn where his life and the lives of the other men would change forever.
In 2002, he spoke to Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who was arrested in August 1989 and was serving a life sentence for two rape convictions and for the murder of a pregnant woman.
Matias told Wise and the police that he was actually the one who had raped Trisha back in 1989. He knew details of the attack that only the offender would know and DNA evidence confirmed he was telling the truth. His semen matched what was found on Trisha. But since his confession was given outside of the statute of limitations, he was not given any additional prison time.
On December 19, 2002, New York State vacated the convictions of the five men and they were taken off the sex offender registry. In 2003, the men sued NYC for $250 million for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. However, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city refused to settle.
In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio settled the case and awarded the men $41 million total. Salaam, McCray, Richardson, and Santana each received $7.1 million, while Wise received $12.2 million. But no amount of money will ever give back what was taken from them thirty years ago.
As for Trump? He never apologized to the men or admitted that he was wrong. And let’s be honest, he’ll never admit he was wrong about anything.
In fact, during his presidential campaign in 2016, he still spread fallacies about the crime.
“They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Did he miss the fact that there was no evidence against them and that somebody else’s DNA was found at the scene of the crime?
Speaking with Vanity Fair, Ava DuVernay knows that the show is going to make people uncomfortable. But she hopes that people won’t turn away from the injustice.
“I hope people bear witness to it, even though it might be hard, I’d like to think people are courageous enough and challenge themselves to sit through something that’s hard.”
As for where the men ended up? Antron McCray lives in Georgia with his wife and children; Yusef Salaam lives in Georgia and is a board member for The Innocence Project. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Barack Obama in 2016; Raymond Santana lives in Georgia, where he runs his clothing company Park Madison NYC; Kevin Richardson lives in New Jersey and is a public speaker and advocate prison reform; Korey Wise lives in NYC and is public speaker and advocate of prison reform
As for Trisha Meili, she has no memory of the attack. In 2003, she published a memoir, I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility and she now works with survivors of sexual assault.
When They See Us premieres Friday, May 31st on Netflix.
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Alysia Stevenson is a twenty-seven New York City transplant currently living in Florida with her boyfriend and three furbabies. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching beauty tutorials on Youtube or Parks and Rec for the millionth time.