When They See Us Is Based On A Shameful Chapter In New York City History

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images.
On the evening of April 13, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili went for a run in Central Park after a 12-hour workday at an investment bank. She never finished her workout. Meili was found by the side of a ravine, raped and brutally injured. While she was in a coma, investigators pinned the crime on a group of five Harlem teenagers, aged between 14 and 16, who had been in Central Park that night with a large group.
The media lumped them together as the Central Park Five. Ava DuVernay’s searing four-part series, When They See Us, out on Netflix May 31, gives the boys their names back: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. In doing so, DuVernay restores their individual humanity. When They See Us tells the story of the crime through an empathetic lens — which the media at the time never did.
The Central Park Five ended up serving years of their lives for a career they did not commit. Here’s how it happened.
The case emerged at a time when race relations in New York City were dire.
Picture New York in the year 1989. On one hand, Wall Street was exploding, and the rich were thriving. On the other, the crack epidemic was raging. There were 2,000 murders a year citywide — and the majority of the victims were people of color. The city was polarized along racial lines.
“This is the cauldron in which the Central Park jogger narrative emerged,” professor Natalie Byfield, a former reporter at the NY Daily News, told 20/20.
Central Park, a green and open space, was one of the few spaces where all the factions of the city co-existed. On that night in April, they clashed. Meili was a Yale and Harvard-educated investment banker, and a white woman. The “Central Park Five” were all teenagers of color, and were part of a group of 30 to 40 boys roving through Central Park that evening harassing people and chasing bike-riders. In the ensuing fevered media coverage, the boys’ activity was called “wildling” — a racially loaded term that likened the boys to a wolf-pack.
Meili and the boys embodied the two forces going head-to-head throughout the city. Ultimately, this narrative was more convincing than actual DNA evidence. So began the miscarriage of justice.
The five teenagers were coerced into giving false confessions.
The evening of April 13, some of the teenagers were arrested even before Meili was discovered in the ravine. Meili’s presence changed the seriousness of the crime. “There was an intense pressure to solve the case,” Tim Minton, a former ABC reporter, told 20/20.
Over the course of the next few days, the police questioned the five young suspects, none of whom had ever committed a crime before. As When They See Us show, the cops lied about having evidence and gave false information about what the other boys had said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew I didn’t have anything to do with anything,” McCray told the New York Times.
Salaam recalled the terror of those hours in police custody. “If you take an individual that’s 15 years old and you put them in a room by themselves with two to six officers, some of them wanting to attack you, that individual would be terrified. It could be tantamount to someone having a gun to your head,” Yusuf Salaam said on 20/20.
The boys and their guardians would do whatever it took to go free, even if it meant playing boys against the other ones. Ultimately, the police coerced the boys to blame each other and confess to the crime — on video tape. Only Salaam didn’t go on video or give a written statement, as his mother had intervened. These recorded confessions were used against the teenagers during their trials.
Public response to the investigations was heated. In a strange turn, President Donald Trump, then a real estate mogul, got involved by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty.
Despite no DNA evidence linking them to the crime, the Central Park Five were found guilty.
Never mind that the boys’ confessions didn’t coincide with the actual facts of the crime. Never mind that the boys’ stories changed during each retelling. Never mind that there was no DNA evidence linking any of the boys to the crime.
There was no one to prove otherwise. Meili woke up 12 days after falling into a coma but retained no memories from that evening.
So, the trials still swiftly concluded with guilty confessions. In the first trial in August 1990, Salaam, McCray, and Santana were convicted of rape, assault, robbery, and riot and given the maximum sentence for juveniles of five to 10 years. Richardson and Wise were sentenced in December; Wise, to prison.
The Central Park Five served almost their full sentences before they were exonerated.
The press and the public perceived the five boys as criminals. Then, evidence came forward that challenged everything.
While in prison, Korey Wise came in contact with a prisoner named Matias Reyes, who was serving a life sentence. Reyes felt guilty that Wise was serving for a crime that he himself had committed. So, in 2002, Reyes was finally compelled to confess to raping and assaulting Meili in 1989 — he was also guilty of other rapes in Central Park that summer. His DNA was a match, and the men were exonerated. Their convictions were overturned.
In 2014, the five men reached a $41 million settlement with Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city of New York. "No amount of money could have given us our time back," Salaam told CBS.
When They See Us isn't just a retelling of the events.
There have been documentaries and specials made about the miscarriage of justice, including the notable Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five in 2012. DuVernay wanted to do something different — create a portrait of the men as individuals, not as the Central Park Five. "It's not a crime drama, it's a family drama. One that hopefully puts a human face on the overall epidemic of police aggression and mass incarceration," DuVernay told GQ.
All four episodes of When They See Us hit Netflix May 31.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

More from News

R29 Original Series