Netflix’s most-watched documentary since its May 31 premiere, When They See Us revisits the group of five young men who became known as the Central Park Five and the crime that changed New York City.
In the spring of 1989, New York City was a rough place. Crime included a series of near daily rapes in the same upper quadrant of Central Park. A woman, attacked and raped while jogging through Central Park, was beaten so severely that she was in a coma for 12 days. The victim, Trisha Meili, was a young, white, charismatic Yale graduate who worked as an investment banker.
The case made headlines across the country as five young African-American and Hispanic teenagers, later nicknamed by the media as the “Central Park Five” were arrested of the crime. They varied in age from 14-16 years old. News coverage of the teens included descriptors such as “savages,” “animals,” and “human mutations.” The brutal assault and rape shook the nation and highlighted tensions over race, class, youth and economic status.
In that early evening of April 19, 1989, a group of teenagers were throwing rocks at cabs and roughing up runners who passed them in New York City’s Central Park. Trisha Meili began her jog nearby. About four hours after she left home, her bloody body was found in a ravine. Her eye socket was crushed by a rock, her skull was fractured, and she lost nearly 80% of her blood supply. Unconscious, she was transported immediately by medics to a local hospital where she remained in a coma for twelve days. When she awoke, she had no memory of the attack, including the identity of her attackers.
Confessions…. then retractions
Community outrage and anxiety were soon quelled when police confidently announced they had suspects in custody. The attackers were described to the media as a ‘wolf pack’ hunting their prey. Lengthy interrogations resulted in the young men confessing to the crime, even describing in detail what transpired that night. There were no attorneys present and the suspects were not allowed to speak to their parents.
The problem with the confession was that none of it was true. All five boys soon retracted the statements they made to the police, saying they were intimidated into confessing. The cases proceeded to trial. There was no DNA match to any of the suspects. No physical evidence. No fingerprints. No consistency between the stories. The boys plead their innocence. Faith leaders urged the community to remain calm, but the media frenzy was at an all-time high. Full page ads were placed in New York newspapers, calling for a return of the death penalty for criminals such as the “Central Park Five,” even prior to their trials.
The young men were soon convicted and sentenced. Four of the kids went to juvenile facilities, while the fifth, only 16 at the time, was sentenced to an adult prison for the offense.
In 2002, an already incarcerated man admitted to the crime. Matias Reyes confessed to being the lone attacker. He provided specific details of the crime that were never released to the public. His DNA was a match. But, the statute of limitations had passed and Reyes could not be charged. His statement, however, opened the door for the Central Park Five to successfully petition to overturn their convictions. In 2003, the men filed a civil rights suit against the City of New York, and the city settled for $41 million. The settlement was bittersweet. Wise stated, “no money can bring that time back…. You can forgive but you won’t forget. You won’t forget what you lost.”
The Netflix documentary serves as an important look at how the criminal justice system failed. It failed both the young men sentenced for a crime they never committed and the woman whose attacker will never be held accountable for the crime.
Yusef. Antron. Raymond. Korey. Kevin. Five men connected in a way few of us could ever imagine.
As an attorney defending persons accused of crimes, I hope that When They See Us shows a glimpse of the past instead of how the criminal justice system sees people today in 2019. If you need representation for a crime, please call Joe Edwards at 614-309-0243 for a consultation.