The new four-part Netflix dramatic miniseries, When They See Us, tells the story of the so-called Central Park Five — five African-American and Latino teenagers accused in 1989 of a brutal rape and near-fatal assault on a woman jogging in New York City’s Central Park. The miniseries has already had real-life consequences, three decades after the crime.
Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor who secured convictions of the five teens, sending them to prison for 13 years before they were exonerated, has already been forced to resign from two nonprofit boards and lost her contract to publish a new mystery novel after fallout from the series, NBC News reported.
The five young men, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, were swept up in a city-wide, and nationwide, hysteria over rampant crime — a hysteria that, at least based on crime statistics, was not entirely unjustified. According to statistics cited by The New York Daily News, New York, in 1989, experienced an average of five murders, nine rapes, 255 robberies, and 194 aggravated assaults every day. And that is just the crimes that were reported to police.
On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker, whose identity was revealed 14 years later as Trisha Meili, was brutally attacked, raped, and struck on the head with a rock, as an Esquire timeline recounts, lying undiscovered, but somehow alive, for several hours.
By late the following night, police brought in five teenagers who had been seen in the park that night, and interrogated them without their parents or lawyers present, until all but one, Salaam, signed “confessions.” Even though they all quickly recanted their confessions, saying that they had been pressured into signing them by police, the teens were convicted in 1990.
They had already been convicted in the press and by the public. As The Amsterdam News recounted, the local media accused them of “wilding,” which was supposedly a reference to committing senseless assaults for fun. New York’s Mayor Ed Koch publicly condemned them, and New York newspapers printed their names, despite the boys all being minors.
Perhaps most notably, Donald J. Trump — then a local celebrity real estate mogul — paid $85,000 to take out full page ads in the city’s newspapers, calling for the death penalty, as CNN recounts.
“I hate these people and let’s all hate these people because maybe hate is what we need,” Trump declared in an interview with CNN.
This is the full-page advertisement Donald Trump took out calling for the execution of the Central Park Five.— Scott Bixby (@scottbix) February 10, 2018
They were later exonerated by DNA evidence, although President Trump maintains that they are guilty. pic.twitter.com/vspZemnW93
In reality, as later DNA testing showed, the horrific attack on Meili was committed by a serial rapist named Matias Reyes, as Newsweek reported. Reyes had committed a similar, violent rape just two nights earlier, and police had been given his name as a suspect in that attack. But they never pursued the lead.
As police and prosecutors pressed their case against Wise, Richardson, McCray, Salaam, and Santana, Reyes continued to commit violent rapes, murdering one of his victims, a pregnant mother-of-three. He was finally apprehended in August of 1989, receiving a life sentence when he was convicted two years later.
In 2002, the five teens — then grown adults — were released when a judge overturned their convictions based on the new, exonerating evidence, as The New York Times reported. But it would take another 12 years for the city to finally settle lawsuits brought by the “Central Park Five” for their wrongful convictions, awarding them $41 million.
In an interview with ABC News last month, Meili — who says that due to her brain injuries she cannot recall the attack or the events leading up to it — said that she wishes the city had not settled, because “there’s a lot of information that’s now being released that I’m seeing for the first time,” and she believes that Reyes did not act alone in assaulting her.
In 2014, Trump again injected himself into the case, calling the settlement “a disgrace,” despite the exoneration of the five men, as USA Today reported.
Asked about the case in 2016 during his presidential campaign, and 14 years after Wise, Richardson, McCray, Salaam, and Santana were cleared of the crime, Trump made no apologies for his public attacks on the then-teenagers, according to NBC News, saying that he continued to believe the five were guilty.