When They See Us: true story of Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five drama

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The rape of a jogger and the wrongful conviction of a group of teenage boys was the most talked-about crime of the Nineties. Now, it is being revisited in a new Netflix series directed by Ava Duvernay. 

Just before nine o’clock in the evening on 19 April, 1989, 28-year-old financial analyst Trisha Meili left her Upper East Side apartment and went jogging in Central Park.

Her normal route began at the 84th street entrance – just past the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and moved north along the East drive. She would continue on that track through the north-eastern corner of the Park, the one that brushed against Harlem, with a view to swinging left at the 102nd street cross-drive then south on the West drive, ringing ‘The Reservoir’, until she re-emerged at 84th street.

It normally took Meili around 40 minutes to complete the circuit. That Wednesday night she entered the park wearing black leggings, a white long-sleeve shirt and listening to music through a set of headphones. 15 minutes later – halfway between the East and West drives on the 102nd cross-street – Meili was attacked. 

Joggers in Central Park

She was tackled to the ground and hit across the back of her head with a tree branch. Momentarily rendered unconscious, she was hauled approximately 40 feet from the cross-drive onto the woody section slightly north of the path known as ‘The Loch’. She regained consciousness and fought back, but was eventually subdued with repeated blows to the head by a blunt rock. She was raped, her shirt serving as a restraint.

The attack was over in approximately 20 minutes, at which point Meili was abandoned, in the shadows of the close vegetation that characterises that area of the park, until two construction workers discovered her more than four hours later and alerted police.

That same evening, police apprehended Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise between Central Park and 102nd Street. The boys were friends and they had been in the park that evening. They were all between 14 and 16 years old. They were all men of colour. 

Antron McCray (front left) and Yusef Salaam (back right) walk to court during the trial of the Central Park rape

Police and prosecutors elicited signed confessions out of four of the five youths on camera, though each maintained that they did not rape Meili and that they had only been an accomplice to the attack. These confessions were obtained after arduous interrogations, some of which lasted up to 30 hours.

All of them later retracted these confessions and maintained their innocence. 

There was evidence to back up their claims, too. DNA collected from Meili’s body suggested that the attack had been carried out by a single person, rather than five different people. And yet, all five teenagers were charged and ultimately convicted. 

Police investigate in Central Park

But they didn’t do it. In 2001, a convicted serial rapist by the name of Matias Reyes met Wise when they were both moved to the same prison facility. 

After being imprisoned, Reyes had found religion and wanted to atone for his crimes. Reyes admitted that it was he who had raped Meili, and that he was the only person responsible for the attack. DNA corroborated his confession. 

“A lot of people have asked, ‘Why didn’t you say something back then?’” Reyes has said. “I don’t know… I wanted so bad to approach him and to speak to him and tell him that it was me that did the crime he’s in jail for, that if he could forgive me.” 

On 19 December 2002 the convictions of all five of the young men were vacated. Wise had served 13 years behind bars, and the other four men seven years each. Today, they are free. 

Where are the Central Park Five now?

In 2003, Richardson, Santana and McCray joined together to sue New York City for $250 million on the counts of malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. The case stalled for a decade until 2013 when the newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to settle suit upon his election.

That settlement came through in 2014 to the tune of $41 million (£31 million), split between the five men, which works out to be $1 million for each year served behind bars. (Wise received a slightly larger settlement than the other four men because he had spent the longest in jail.)

The money is integral to their rehabilitation in society, Santana explained at the time. “When you have a person who has been exonerated of a crime, the city provides no services to transition him back to society,” he explained. “The only thing left is something like this, so you can receive some type of money so you can survive.” 

Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana speak to the press on the day they received the settlement

In 2017, Santana, Richardson and Salaam all received honorary school diplomas from Bronx Preparatory High School. All three men were incarcerated before they could finish school, but completed their higher education behind bars.

“Even though we were not able to go back and right the wrong of not getting our high school diplomas outside,” Salaam said at the graduation ceremony. “Here we are being honoured in such a way in front of our family and friends. This is a blessing.”

Salaam has remained an outspoken critic of the police and the incarceration process since his release from prison more than a decade ago.

In a speech given on Martin Luther King Day in 2019, Salaam recalled his life before the wrongful accusations. “I was 15 years old. My aspirations were to watch The Cosby Show at night and to skateboard,” he said. “They pointed at me and described me in a matter I could not recognise.”

He added that the words and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr stayed with him throughout his imprisonment. “When you walk into hell, keep walking,” Salaam explained.

Korey Wise, Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam in 2012

Where is Trisha Meili, the Central Park jogger, now? 

Meili spent eight months recovering from the attack before she returned to her job in finance. At first, she spent 12 days in a coma and unable to walk or talk, but over time she made an almost complete recovery. Today, she has some issues with balance and vision loss, and has absolutely no memory of the attack itself.

For a long time, Meili’s identity as the Central Park jogger victim was obscured in media reports. She confirmed her identity in 2003 with the release of her memoir I Am The Central Park Jogger. Since its release, Meili has worked with sex assault victims and as a motivational speaker. 

Trisha Meili

“My hope is that by sharing my story, I can encourage survivors to accept that they are not to blame for the assault,” Meili told Shape in 2018. “It’s not their fault but rather their perpetrator’s choice.”

Where is Linda Fairstein, the Central Park Five prosecutor, now?

Linda Fairstein was the assistant district attorney in the sex crimes unit of New York City at the time of the Central Park Five case.

Salaam alleges that Fairstein barred his aunt and mentor David Nocenti, himself a lawyer, from seeing him during the interrogation process. At the time, Salaam was 15.

“They really wanted us to leave so they could complete their process,” Salaam’s aunt Sharonne has said. “At one point, I was hyperventilating and I asked for water and Fairstein said there was just no water in the building. It was very strange.” 

Linda Fairstein

Fairstein has always maintained that the teenagers were involved in the crime. In 2002, when Reyes confessed and the convictions were overturned, Fairstein offered the following as a theory as to what happened that night.

“I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids. He stayed longer when the others moved on. He completed the assault. I don’t think there is a question in the minds of anyone present during the interrogation process that these five men were participants, not only in the other attacks that night but in the attack on the jogger… Remember, I had a lot of cases with comatose victims. They wake up, more often than not. What’s the likelihood that a sophisticated group of cops and prosecutors are going to make up a story that she can refute when she wakes up?” 

Fairstein is also a crime novelist and author of some 19 thrillers. In 2015, she was one of a team of lawyers who helped Harvey Weinstein deal with a police complaint filed against him by Italian model Ambra Battilana.

“Linda Fairstein… was willing to facilitate introductions to the current sex crimes prosecutor who was handling the case,” Megan Twohey, one of the New York Times investigative reporters who worked on the Weinstein story, told NPR. “And within weeks that case was dead.” 

What’s the link between the Central Park Five and Donald Trump?

“Bring back the death penalty! Bring back our police!”

Those were the words atop of the full-page advertisement that Donald Trump placed at his own expense in New York’s four major newspapers in the wake of the Central Park jogger rape. Trump was then a businessman in the city, and a presidential run was not even a twinkle in his eye.

The advertisement cost Trump a reported $85,000 (£65,000), and was accused of inciting bias against the Central Park Five. 

In 2002, when the convictions of the teenagers were overturned, lawyers for the group called on Trump to apologise. Trump refused, even after protesters picketed Trump Tower. (“I don’t mind if they picket,” he said. “I like pickets.”) 

Protesters call for the release of the Central Park Five

In 2014, when the damages settlement for the men was reached, Trump penned an opinion piece for New York Daily News that expressed his true opinions about the case.

“Settling doesn’t mean innocence,” Trump wrote. “Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”

Trump continues to argue that the Central Park Five are guilty to this day. 

What is When They See Us, the miniseries of the Central Park Five’s story on Netflix?

In 2017, director Ava DuVernay announced that her next project would be a four-episode miniseries dramatisation of the rape of jogger Trisha Meili and the Central Park Five’s wrongful conviction. 

The miniseries began filming in New York in 2018 and will be streaming on Neflix from 31 May. Oprah and Robert DeNiro join DuVernay as producers. It will be called When They See Us

The cast is impeccable: Vera Farmiga stars as jogger Trisha Meili and Felicity Huffman as the state prosecutor Linda Fairstein. Joshua Jackson will play defense lawyer Mickey Joseph.

And playing the wrongfully accused teenagers is a who’s who of the best and brightest young actors in Hollywood, including Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome as Wise, Caleel Harris as McCray, Jerome Ethan Herisse as Salaam, Marquis Rodriguez as Santana and Asante Blackk as Richardson. 

Wise with Ava Duvenay 

“I had an extraordinary experience working with Netflix on 13th and am overjoyed to continue this exploration of the criminal justice system as a narrative project with Cindy Holland and the team there,” DuVernay said in a statement.

“The story of the men known as Central Park Five has riveted me for more than two decades. In their journey, we witness five innocent young men of colour who were met with injustice at every turn, from coerced confessions to unjust incarceration to public calls for their execution by the man who would go on to be the President of the United States.” 

Is there a trailer for When They See Us

There is. Shared by director Ava DuVernay on her Twitter on 1 March, the first footage from the miniseries is of the police arresting the five boys and throwing them in a prison cell. 

“Let’s get an army of blue up in Harlem,” Huffman, as prosecutor Fairstein, says in voice over. “You go into those projects and you stop every little thug you see, you bring in every kid who was in the park last night.”

What is The Central Park Five documentary?

If you can’t wait for the Netflix series, check out the documentary on the case by famed filmmaker Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah called The Central Park Five

Released in 2012 on the ten-year anniversary of the vacation of the convictions, the documentary is available to stream right now on Amazon Prime.

It has been called “the most important documentary” of Burns’ career, and was instrumental in agitating for the million-dollar settlement for the five wrongfully convicted teenagers. “The film incisively documents a travesty of justice,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote.

When They See Us streams on Netflix now. The Central Park Five documentary is available on Amazon Prime.

Images: Unsplash, Getty


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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