When They See Us is a 4-part Netflix series about the so-called Central Park Five. The story of the Central Park Five has been part of the discussion over the last few years because Donald Trump wrote a letter in all of New York City’s major papers urging the death penalty for the five boys who were between 14 and 16 years old.
While Trump’s involvement should be discussed because its even more evidence of his racism, the most important part of the story has been ignored.
On the night of April 19th, 1986 28-year-old Trisha Meili, a white woman, went jogging in Central Park. She was found badly beaten, raped, and left for dead.
Over the next 48 hours. Kevin Richardson (14), Raymond Santana (14), Yusef Salaam (15), Antron McCray (15), and Kory Wise (16) were arrested. The children were interrogated for hours with no access to lawyers, limited to no contact with their parents, and no food. During the interrogations, detectives lied, made false promises, and eventually resorted to beatings.
After that torrent of unconstitutional abuse, the prosecutors and police got the children to sign statements written by the police. In at least the case of Kory Richardson, there is reason to believe he wasn’t able to read the statement they forced him to sign.
Trisha Meili spent 12 days in a coma. She never remembered what happened to her.
Meili’s clothes were covered in blood. Yet, none of the blood on her clothes belonged to the young men. Her blood wasn’t on any of the clothing warn by the young men. No DNA evidence linked any of the young men to the crime scene.
The semen found inside Trisha Meili belonged to someone else. As did the DNA found on a sock located at the crime scene.
With the only physical evidence marking someone else as the perpitrator, the prosecutors and police went forward with their case. The only evidence they had was the confessions they knew were coerced and gotten in violation of the young men’s constitutional rights.
Sadly, a jury convicted all five of numerous charges. They would spend between six and 14 years in prison for crimes the prosecutors and police knew or should have known they didn’t commit.
More than a dozen years after the crime, Matias Reyes, who was in prison for several rapes and a murder, confessed to the attack on Trisha Meili. The DNA found at the crime scene in 1989 matched that of Reyes. He provided detectives with facts that weren’t public knowledge.
If it weren’t for Reyes confessing and the DNA linking only Reyes to the scene, the Central Park Five would have never been exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit.
It’s unimaginable to me that five white teenagers would have ever been treated so badly–especially if the victim was a black woman. The truth is the Central Park Five were arrested, had their constitutional rights violated, were wrongly prosecuted, erroneously convicted, and robbed of years of their lives because of the inherent racism of the injustice system and the racist prosecutors and police who were going to convict these black boys regardless of evidence and reason.
As a lawyer and someone who deeply cares about justice, watching When They See Us was infuriating! The kind of blatant trampling of constitutional rights happens because prosecutors and police are rarely held accountable for violating people’s constitutional rights or their obvious racism.
Instead of dedicating all of our discussion around Donald Trump, let’s see if the story of the Central Park Five can motivate us to have a dialogue around meaningful justice reform that includes punishing unethical, racist professionals. Our injustice system won’t be more just until those working in it are accountable to it.