The Real Crime Case Behind Ava DuVernay's When They See Us Will Haunt You
Prior to Disney's A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay shifted conversations around racial justice with films like 13 and Selma. When They See Us, her latest project now available to stream on Netflix, revisits the harrowing story of the Central Park Five in a five-part limited series. The details of the real case are ghastly, marking a grave miscarriage of justice and revealing how the deep legacy of racism plagued America's media and legal system in the late '80s.
While out on a jog the evening of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman named Trisha Meili was brutally assaulted and raped at Central Park. Her body was found in a ravine, covered in grime and blood. She spent 12 days in a coma, suffering from severe hypothermia and memory loss. Though medical professionals believed that she would die, Meili woke up. The trauma affected her memory, rendering her unable to recall the attack or the six weeks following it. She stayed at a rehabilitation center for several months, initially unable to walk, talk, or read.
Five young black and Latino men under the age of 17 — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise — were arrested and tried for Meili's assault. While pressured by the police for confessions, each pointed fingers to one or more of the other young men, denying that they committed the rape but admitting to being accomplices.
In an interview, Sarah Burns, who created a documentary about the case (trailer above) with her father, Ken Burns, commented on interrogation practices that yield false confessions.
"It's totally accepted to lie to a suspect and to scream and yell and intimidate," Burns noted. "And I think what happens in this case is something along the lines of good cop-bad cop. Raymond [Santana] in the film describes it very clearly, he was actually afraid, I mean physically afraid, that he was going to be attacked by one of these cops."
Prior to the trial, forensic scientists found that the DNA in the rape kit matched none of the accused. To the public, prosecutors presented the findings as "inconclusive." Each young man eventually served between six to 13 years in prison.
In 2002, a convicted rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and said that he carried it out alone. Investigators corroborated his claims, confirming that he was the contributor to the semen on the victim. The Central Five would then be exonerated and later received a settlement for $40 million.
Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam in 2012. Image Source: Getty / D Dipasupil
During the arrests and trials, the media further fueled vitriol and speculation. Though the young men were minors, the press photographed them and published their names and addresses. Papers also amplified voices that demonized the young men. One of the most vocal public figures condemning the young men was Donald Trump. Approaching four newspapers, he paid a reported $85,000 in advertising space in 1989 to publish a letter headlined, "Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!" He referred to the young men as "muggers and murderers."
His outcries back then echo the virulently racist rhetoric that he ran on during his 2016 campaign, in which he called for a Muslim ban and referred to Mexicans as "murderers and rapists." Even in October 2016, Trump remained convinced about the Central Park Five's guilt despite their exoneration 14 years prior.
The case is heartbreaking and infuriating from all angles, even decades later — especially decades later if you consider it against the backdrop of the current political climate. But if anyone can tell the story with sensitivity and incisiveness, it's DuVernay, with Oprah Winfrey as one of her executive producers.