When They See Us: Central Park 5 – A Nightmare Journey To Exoneration

by Gabrielle Ozynski
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Central Park

In 1989 on a spring night in Central Park in Manhattan, a bloodied figure steps out of the bushes, picks up a dropped walkman and strolls off into the night. In another area of the park, a large group of 30 teens were out, some of whom were harassing the homeless and even beating up people. Little did five of them, who were  just enjoying an innocent night out, know that person covered in blood had just raped and almost killed a woman jogger, (Trisha Meili) and they were about to take the rap for him. Thus unfolds a gruelling account of the Central Park Five in When They See Us by Ava Duvernay.

Central Park

When police came running into Central Park that night to arrest the troublemakers, they fled.  This is where the five’s nightmare began to unfold.  Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson were arrested. By the next morning, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray were also arrested for supposed troublemaking in the park.

After being questioned the four were about to be released as it was deemed they were not involved in the beatings.

It was after the woman jogger was discovered and the police asked Kevin about a scratch on his cheek that the entire situation changed and police began intensive interrogation implying the four were behind the attack. In the meanwhile the fifth teen, Korey Wise, who was with Yusuf Salaam when Yusuf was arrested, had accompanied him as a loyal friend to the station, dutifully waiting while Yusuf was interrogated.

Central Park

The teens had been interrogated for hours on end, not knowing they were entitled to lawyers,  the three that had parents present were actually absent for much of the teens’ interrogation. They had no food or water, were threatened with violence and long jail sentences and finally given false promises that they could go home if they would just ‘admit’ their part in the assault and rape, and implicate the others.  Totally intimidated and out of their depth – in a bizarre process they each made up what their part was in the attack, giving incorrect details of where it happened and contradictory descriptions of who did what that didn’t add up. McCray said the jogger was wearing blue shorts, but Meili was wearing tights. He also said that she was jogging around a reservoir, when the reservoir was more than a mile and a half away from where her body was found.

After their long interrogations,  state prosecutor Linda Fairstein was confronted by the many weaknesses and holes in the case against the four. She then said there were more than four people involved and that a fifth person was needed to just  pull the case together and place all of them at the scene. That person she said was Korey. From sitting on a bench loyally waiting for his friend, Korey  suddenly became the fifth person to be charged.

Kevin, Antron and Raymond, not  knowing the others, either implicated himself or one of the others (except for Yusuf),   after police told each one that the others blamed him.

Central Park

Santana told a journalist about how he came to sign a statement: “He slides something over for me to sign. Then he tells me to go see this other officer and tell him exactly what I just told him. So I do. No lawyer, no parent, no nothing.” Korey, who is somewhat hard of hearing, and has a learning disability, said his brain was like ‘scrambled egg’ and he didn’t know what was going on. He could not understand the statement he signed. He said he just wanted to get out and go home, as did the other four. Antron’s step father was spoken to by police in private. When he returned to Antron he shouted at him to just tell the police what they wanted to hear. Antron says he has never forgave his now late step father for that, calling him a ‘coward’.

How The Word ‘Wilding’ Was Introduced

Some police claim they heard the group of boys arrested say they’d been out ‘wilding’ – interpreted to mean going out to create chaos. However Sarah Burns who made a documentary on the five, said the word wilding could actually have been ‘wiling,’ which means ‘chilling’, ‘hanging out’ with no violent connotations (wiling away the time?). Police said they’d never heard the word’ wilding’ before, as did Richardson, but other policemen claimed they heard the boys singing ‘Wild Thing’ by rapper Tone Loc while in custody. The media picked it up and ran headlines saying Wolf Pack’s Prey and Park Marauders Call It ‘Wilding’. Suddenly it was a word that described supposedly what the five had decided to do on that night.

The Five’s Jail Sentences

At 16, Korey was the oldest of the group, he was tried as an adult and sent to an adult prison and served 13 years and eight months in prison. The other four were sent to juvenile detention centres. Kevin RichardsonAntron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana served approximately six years in a juvenile prison after being sentenced to five to 10 years.

Central Park

In the1990 trial of Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise, the former – who was just 14 at the time of Meili’s assault – was convicted of attempted murder and rape, while Wise was found innocent of those charges but guilty on charges of sexual abuse and assault. Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana each faced the charges in a separate trial.

Central Park

The  five later recanted the confession saying they were coerced by police, but their taped ‘confessions’ were to be the final damning ‘evidence’ that saw them incarcerated for someone else’s crime. They were also placed on a sex offender list.

Central Park

It was only in 2002 that a shocking admission by Matias Reyes, already convicted for one murder, five rapes, and two attempted rapes, was it revealed that he was the perpetrator. He’d come  across Korey Wise soon after he jailed when they had a fight and then again years later. After that second meeting, seeing Korey still in jail for a crime he committed, Reyes admitted it to police it was him. He gave them details about the attack that had never been released in public. Reyes’ DNA was found to match DNA on Meili and the crime scene. DNA from the five was never found on her.

Ironically, he was not charged for the vicious assault and rape of Trisha Meili, as the statute of limitations had passed. He was known as the East Side Slasher, and his modus operandi was the same for each crime, including the Meili attack. Yet the police never considered him to be linked to the notorious case and never investigated him for it. Meili was left unconscious after Reyes hit her in the head with a rock, and she was in a coma for 12 days after the attack. She had no memory of it and so could not verify who attacked her.

The Central Park Five were exonerated but it was only in 2014 A US judge in 2014 approved a $41 million be paid out between the five and their lawyers. Wise got the biggest amount of $12 million as he served the longest in an adult jail.

Central Park

The Backlash After The Series Was Released

Vera Farmiga plays Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor, who is shown to express doubts about the five’s guilt in the series. Now also a lecturer at Columbia University, she has ‘decided not to seek reappointment’ as per an email from the dean to students. This was after Columbia University’s Black Students Organisation organised a petition asking for her to be fired. Lederer wrote that the Netflix series had ‘reignited a painful – and vital – national conversation about race, identity, and criminal justice,’ reported the New York Times. She is still a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

On June 4, Linda Fairstein played by Felicity Huffman, also a prosecutor involved in the case has resigned from a number of boards. Fairstein who is now a crime novelist and children’s author has been dropped by her publishers.  A #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag trended on social media after the series came out.

According to the New York times, as  Manhattan’s top sex crimes prosecutor, she was present during the five’s interrogation.

Fairstein then wrote this in the Wall Street Journal about the outcry: “So it is with filmmaker Ava DuVernay in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a series so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication… Ava DuVernay’s miniseries wrongly portrays them as totally innocent – and defames me in the process.”

Central Park

Fairstein’s Admission

Fairstein recently admitted that the rape charge was correctly exonerated, but that the five were correctly charged for attacking people in the park, telling Vanity Fair in an Op-Ed: “Mr. Reyes’s confession, DNA match, and claim that he acted alone required that the rape charges against the five be vacated,” Fairstein writes. “I agreed with that decision, and still do. But the other charges, for crimes against other victims, should not have been vacated. Nothing Mr Reyes said exonerated these five of those attacks. And there was certainly more than enough evidence to support those convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot, and other charges.”

Yet in 2003 after Reyes confession she said:”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 … I watched more than 30 detectives — black, white, Hispanic guys who’d never met each other before — conduct a brilliant investigation.”

Added to that is the police deemed the four to be innocent of any assaults or robbery in the park that night and were about to release them. Korey at that stage was waiting for Yusuf, so he wasn’t even questioned about those assaults.

Other Holes In The State’s Case

  • A sock was found with traces of semen which Linda Fairstein said was the five’s and was also going to help close the case against them. It did not match any of their DNA (or Reyes for that matter). Despite this discovery Fairstein remained determined to convict the five, and doubts about how she was to pull the case together, expressed by Lederer, were pushed aside.
  • At the time of their trial, Linda Fairstein never explained why the five – if they were involved and left Reyes to carry it on – would keep quiet about him and implicate themselves and each other? Surely the logical thing to do would be to make the then unknown suspect take all the blame? Especially since the five did not know Reyes at all. Only now does she claim that it was correct that the rape charge was vacated.
  • Recently a juror on Korey Wise’s trial Victoria Bryers, told ABC News “Korey Wise’s confession didn’t make any sense compared to anything else. It just didn’t line up. Several of the jurors kept at me and at me. They pushed me to go to the other direction and I wished to God I had just hung the jury on that. And that’s, that’s been my biggest regret for 30 years.”
  • The ground had been wet the night of the attack, and drag marks were visible where Meili had been dragged off the road by Reyes. The narrow 45cm trail had absolutely no evidence of five other people having been involved in a violent struggle there. And none of the five had damp or muddied clothing when they were arrested.
  • Also, if they had held her down and she’d struggled and fought back, how was it possible to not leave any DNA traces,  them on her and she on them?
  • In another erroneous claim by the prosecutor in her closing arguments she said hairs matching the jogger’s were found on the clothing of the boys, which was found to be incorrect.

About Trisha Meili

Meili was a 28-year-old investment banker when she was attacked in the park. For 14 years she kept her identity hidden. It was only a year after the five were exonerated that she revealed she was the victim. In the attack, she lost 80% of her blood, her eye socket was crushed and her skull fractured. She has no sense of smell and struggles with her vision and her balance. Now, she is speaks to groups about her journey to recovery and works with sexual assault victims at Mount Sinai Hospital and Gaylord Hospital, where she was treated after the attack.

Of her experience she says,”I thought this would be a good time to say, ‘Hey, look. It’s been 20 years, and life doesn’t end after brain injury, after sexual assault or whatever our challenges are.”

Meili told the New York Daily News that “the last thing I want is for innocent people to have been convicted,” but she is disbelieving of Reyes’ confession that he alone attacked her, and thinks he’s a ‘pathological liar’.  Her firm belief is that more than one person attacked her. She told the New York Daily News she was ‘shocked and somewhat disgusted’ by the settlement, paid out to the five. Citing the original confessions of the five, she is not convinced of their innocence. In an interview with ABC News 20/20 she said: “I so wish the case hadn’t been settled. I wish that it had gone to court because there’s a lot of information that’s now being released that I’m seeing for the first time.” It is not known what new information has come out.

Donald Trump’s Response Then And Now

Back then Trump, a property mogul, voiced his hatred of the five and belief that they were guilty by taking out four full page ads in the New York Times headed: Bring Back The Death Penalty, Bring Back Our Police! He also wrote that he wanted to ‘hate these murderers’ and ‘always would’. “I am not looking to psychoanalyse or understand them, I am looking to punish them’.  In an interview with CNN he said:”Maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.”

 

Just after When They See Us‘ release, Trump was asked by a reporter if he would apologise to the five for placing those newspaper ads. His response:”Why do you bring this question up now? It’s an interesting time to bring it up. You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt. If you look at Linda Fairstein and if you look at some of the prosecutors, they think that the city should never have settled that case. So we’ll leave it at that.”  Trump fails to note that even Fairstein said they were correctly exonerated of the rape charge.

23 million people tuned in to watch the series on Netflix.

Watch Interviews With The Five: Central Park Five interviews

The series stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga,John Leguizamo,  Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash,  Blair Underwood,  Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

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