Features and Columns · TV

The Real Story Behind ‘When They See Us’

Ava DuVernay’s upcoming Netflix series will explore the notorious real-life case that saw a group of teenagers convicted for a crime they didn’t commit.
When They See Us
By  · Published on May 2nd, 2019

Netflix has taken full advantage of people’s morbid fascination with true crime. With its consistent supply of documentaries and dramatized shows, the streaming giant has unleashed some of the most compelling television inspired by real-life atrocities in recent memory. That trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon, as the company has recruited Ava DuVernay to helm a miniseries based on one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice of the 1980s.

When They See Us is a dramatization of the infamous Central Park jogger case from 1989, which saw five teenagers of color in New York City — Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Korey Wise, and Kevin Richardson, collectively dubbed “The Central Park Five” — wrongfully convicted for brutally assaulting and raping Trisha Meili, a white woman. Check out the trailer below, and then we’ll dive into exploring the case that inspired the show’s creation.

There’s no doubt that DuVernay’s series will do a great job of telling this story, but no dramatic take on the events will ever be as disturbing as the real thing. For a start, the attack, which left Meili in a coma for 12 days, is too chilling to think about. To this day, she has no memory of the horrible events. As for the Central Park Five, they lost their freedom because of the corruption and racial discrimination within the NYC police force at the time.

The boys were no angels, though. On the night of the vicious assault, they had taken part in riots along with several other youths which saw them beat up joggers and throw rocks at cars. Law enforcement and the media were quick to point the finger of blame at the Black and Hispanic youths. The assault prompted outrage and sensational headlines, which compared the teenagers to savages. When four out of the five confessed to being accomplices to the rape, their fates were sealed. Following two separate trials in 1990, they were found guilty of assault, robbery, rape, rioting, sexual abuse, and attempted murder. They subsequently received sentences ranging between five and 15 years.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Despite their “confessions,” none of the boys’ DNA matched up with the FBI’s rape kit, and none of the witnesses who testified against them in court could place them at the scene of the crime. Furthermore, the teens claimed that the police had intimidated and coerced them into making their respective statements. They retracted their confessions shortly after making them, but it was too late. The law had enough evidence to prosecute the youths.

As noted in Ken Burns’ illuminating documentary The Central Park Five, the boys were offered a bargain during the interrogation process: if they identified the other members of the group as the criminals who committed the rape, they could walk free. However, since none of the boys had any idea of what happened to Meili, their statements were flawed and inconsistent.

Still, given the five boys’ involvement in the riots, the law, media, and public weren’t exactly sympathetic to their plight. Crime in New York City was out of control back then, and people were calling for hard crackdowns. Unfortunately, this mentality led to five men growing into adulthood behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.

The truth finally came to light in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist-turned-Christian, confessed that he alone had attacked and raped Meili. DNA results confirmed his story. Per the new evidence, District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau officially acquitted the Central Park Five of their crimes. But the men had already served the majority of their sentences, which led to McCray, Santana, and Richardson trying to sue the city for $250 million. The two parties eventually settled for $41 million.

Not everyone is convinced of the men’s innocence, though. As noted by The New York Times, a 2003 New York Police Department review concluded that the boys were “likely guilty” of assaulting Meili, even if they didn’t commit the rape themselves. Linda Fairstein, who worked for the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time, still believes that the jury reached the correct verdict. Elsewhere, Donald Trump — who spent $85,000 on ads calling for the Central Park Five’s conviction back in 1989 — maintained that they committed the acts. It remains a divisive case to this day.

At the end of the day, the drama surrounding the five men and the American justice system has overshadowed the most important person involved in the events — Meili. Since recovering from the assault, she’s kept a relatively low profile compared to the five men. However, she didn’t let the horrible experience defeat her and refuses to be remembered as a victim. On top of publishing a book about her experience, she’s become an inspirational public speaker who helps those who’ve been sexually assaulted recover from their trauma. Her awful experience cannot be understated, but her response to it has been nothing short of incredible.

For a comprehensive account of the events, Burns’ documentary is essential viewing. At the same time, DuVernay will approach the subject with sensitivity and nuance in her own dramatic retelling of the case. The story won’t be a pleasant one by any means, but it’s an important one to tell. The debate pertaining to the Central Park Five is still a polarizing and contentious issue, but When They See Us has an opportunity to reaffirm the truth.

The limited series premieres on May 31, 2019.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.