On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white investment banker named Trisha Meili was jogging in Central Park when she was beaten, raped, and left for dead. She survived, with no recollection of what happened, and five black and Latino teenage boys from Harlem were charged with the attack, even though no physical evidence tied them to the crime scene and their confessions, which the boys later said were coerced, were filled with inconsistencies. Those boys, who spent years in prison for a crime they did not commit, famously became known as the Central Park Five, and starting on May 31, a new scripted miniseries on Netflix called When They See Us will explore what really happened to them.
Ava DuVernay (13th, Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) created, wrote, and directed the series, after one of the original Central Park Five, Raymond Santana, sent her a tweet, asking if she would look at the case for her next project. According to Town & Country, DuVernay then met with each of the five (Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray), and in her words, “They had to decide if I was the right person.” DuVernay says she chose the series’ title because, to her, the story is about young people of color who are judged upon sight. “What we try to do in the series is show that these are living, breathing people with thoughts, memories, feelings, families.”
Ahead, what you need to know about the new series and the true story of the Central Park Five.
What is the Netflix series about?
When They See Us is a drama miniseries that explores what really happened in the case of the Central Park Five. The four-part series takes you through the night of the crime, the interrogations, the trials, and the time four of the boys spent in prison. (The boys were all between 14 and 16 years old when convicted.) The last episode mainly focuses on the time Wise, the only one convicted as an adult, spent in New York state prisons, where he was the victim of brutal beatings.
Then 13 years after the crime occurred, Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and rapist who met Wise in prison, came forward to admit that he was the one who had attacked Meili, saying he did so alone. DNA evidence linked Reyes to the crime, and his confession reopened the case. (It should also be noted that Reyes had committed another rape near the park days before he assaulted Meili.) Ultimately, in 2002, the Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated, and in 2014, New York City paid the men $41 million to settle a civil suit they filed.
What really happened to the Central Park Five?
On this particular night in April 1989, a number of other crimes were committed in the park, including the harassment and assault of bicyclists and joggers. Because of this, a number of teenagers were picked up by police as they exited the park, and hours later, when the police discovered Meili’s body, those same teenagers became suspects in the rape.
Sarah Burns, who made a documentary about the Central Park Five back in 2012, explained that because Wise, McCray, Salaam, Richardson, and Santana had never been in the system or been in trouble before, they were especially vulnerable when they were picked up by the police, and they did not know to ask for a lawyer or how to keep from saying anything incriminating.
After being brought in, all five were subjected to hours of interrogation with no lawyers, and often with no parents, present. They went without food, water, and sleep, and said they were intimidated and coerced into giving false confessions. Four of the five gave videotaped confessions admitting to being present at the rape and incriminating each other, believing that if they told the officers what they wanted to hear, they would be allowed to go. In a recent interview with CBS, Salaam describes hearing officers beating up Wise in the next room when he was waiting to be interrogated. Salaam’s mother interrupted his interrogation before he signed a confession, but even so, a detective was allowed to testify that Salaam admitted to participating.
As cited in Women’s Health, The Innocence Project, which helped get the five exonerated, reports that in the United States, 28 percent of wrongful conviction cases where people are later exonerated using DNA evidence involve false confessions.
Fast forward to their trials: All five were found guilty, even though there was no DNA evidence that put them at the scene of the crime. But the New York Times reports that the district attorney’s office later said their statements “differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime,” including who initiated the assault, who hit the victim, who held the victim, who raped the victim, the weapons used, and the sequence of events.
The boys were split into two trials, and Salaam, McCray, and Santana were convicted of rape and assault and sentenced to 5 to 10 years; Richardson was sentenced to 5 to 10 years and convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, and robbery; and Wise was sentenced to 5 to 15 years and convicted of assault, sexual abuse, and riot.
The case created a media circus. Reports called the boys a “wolf pack” and Donald Trump spent $85,000 to take out full-page newspaper ads in the four daily New York City newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. As recently as 2016, Trump has said the five are guilty.
The men spent between 7 and 13 years in prison, and consistently maintained their innocence.
Who’s playing the Central Park Five in the Netflix series?
Because the miniseries follows the Central Park Five as both teenagers and adults, four of the group are played by two actors each. Asante Blackk plays young Richardson, while Justin Cunningham plays older Richardson; Caleel Harris plays young McCray, while Jovan Adepo plays older McCray; Ethan Herisse plays young Salaam, while Chris Chalk plays older Salaam; Marquis Rodriguez plays young Santana, while Freddy Miyares plays older Santana; and Jharrel Jerome takes on both younger and older Korey Wise.
Felicity Huffman also appears in the series, playing Linda Fairstein, the woman who oversaw the interrogation of the Central Park Five, and Niecy Nash takes on the role of Wise’s mother.
What have the real Central Park Five said about the new series?
As mentioned above, Santana reached out to DuVernay originally about taking on their story for her next project. He told Town & Country that he had seen her film Selma, about the 1965 march for voting rights, and decided to ask. He said, “It showed me that she wasn’t afraid to tell the truth and she took her craft very seriously. I said, ‘This is the person we need.’”
DuVernay also told the magazine that before the she made the film, Wise said to her about his conviction as an adult, “There is no Central Park Five. It was four plus one. And no one has told that story.” These words inspired her to dedicate the final episode mostly to his time in adult prison.
Richardson recently told NBC, “This whole process was surreal. Just to see our life story portrayed and it to still be relevant 30 years later… I think it will open up doors and conversations for people to see and see exactly what happened to us and everything that we went through and are still going through to this day.”
When They See Us will be available to watch on Netflix starting May 31.