Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray were all teenagers on April 19, 1989, when a 28-year-old white woman was beaten and raped while jogging after hours in New York City’s historic Central Park.
Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time, prosecuted and landed convictions against the five youth — four African-American and one Hispanic, all between ages 14-16. The “Central Park Five” would each spend between five and 15 years in prison.
“I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them,” said Donald Trump, who at the time was a New York real estate mogul who paid $85,000 for full-page ads in four city newspapers calling for the death penalty in the case.
But then convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes admitted in 2002 serving time on other charges that he alone assaulted and raped investment banker Trisha Meili, and the five youths’ convictions were ultimately vacated. But even with the admission and subsequent revelations that Fairstein coerced the boys into confessing despite having no DNA evidence linking them to the crime, Trump never apologized.
Today, 20 years after the case gripped the nation, renowned filmmaker Ava DuVernay has directed the new Netflix series “When They See Us,” which tells the young men’s story of justice delayed.
The series “is a love letter to these men, whose childhoods were stolen by this harrowing case,” DuVernay said in an email. “It is also a love letter to the millions of boys and girls of color who are presumed guilty on sight. My goal is to shed light on the inequities and the bias that makes a case like this possible.”
In the same way so many men of color have been convicted, executed and lynched for crimes they didn’t commit, the Netflix series shows how the prosecutor built a case around the five youths prematurely classified as guilty, rather than engaging in a full-scale investigation.
“We explore a travesty of justice laid bare,” DuVernay said. “We chronicle a broken system fueled by politics, profit and inaction. But we can and should take action.”
In addition to making the film, DuVernay is part of the group Color of Change and its “Winning Justice” campaign, which has been rallying people of color in communities across the country to come together and set the agenda for a new wave of prosecutors.
“And in a dozen cities, thanks to many of you, we now have prosecutors being measured by their commitment to justice rather than by how many people they put in prison,” she said.
“I’m hoping you’ll watch ‘When They See Us’ and be moved to discuss and interrogate the current criminal system of injustice,” DuVernay said. “But I also hope you don’t stop there. Here is how you can make your voice heard: Visit Winning Justice to join campaigns to stop over-policing and racial profiling in our communities to reform our bail system so people’s freedom is not determined by how much they can pay for it; to treat children in the system like children and not criminals to hold prosecutors accountable for wrongful convictions.”