‘When They See Us’ has stoked a wide range of emotions in viewers and has brought much attention to the 1989 Central Park Jogger case in which five African American and Latino boys were wrongfully convicted of the rape of Trisha Meili. A modern- day Scottsboro Boys, the teens faced a legal system historically bent on serving swift “justice” regarding the preservation of white womanhood. Forced confessions, police brutality, the dehumanization of black and brown people, and a brewing mob mentality divided New Yrok into two cities.
Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr., and Kevin Richardson (the Exonerated 5) served 6-13 years within juvenile and adult facilities for crimes they did not commit. They steadily maintained their innocence hoping the truth would one day come out. That day came almost thirteen years later in the early 2000s when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist serving a life sentence, confessed.
The city, in more than one way failed the Exonerated 5. For people knowledgeable of the case, and for a generation now brought into the light thanks to the docuseries, there are countless lessons to be learned from the Central Park Jogger case.
Not all rapes receive equal attention
Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, education, and age, rape touches all lives. New York in the late 80s was a testament to that. According to The New York Times, more than 5,000 rapes and attempted rapes were reported in 1988. The New York Daily News reported in 1989 that “on a typical day… New Yorkers reported nine rapes.”
Between April 16 and April 22, 1989 twenty- nine rapes were reported. The victims ranged from age 8 to 51. Seventeen were African American, seven were Hispanic, three were Caucasian, and two were Asian (The New York Times). Not even two weeks after Meili’s rape “a 38 year- old black woman was taken at knife point…by two men…forced up to the roof of a four-story building (The New York Times, 1989),” raped, beaten and thrown 50 feet to the ground.
Given the sheer numbers, and severity, it is not hard to understand why New York seemed to be ripe with fear following Meili’s rape. Although her attack added to the chaos, the media attention demonstrated society’s ease at overlooking rape victims that did not come from wealthier backgrounds. What citizens saw on the front page of most papers were headlines of a white, female, investment banker alone, not the stories of diverse young girls and women who were also victims turned survivors.
Media has the power to shape public opinion
If the pen is mightier than the sword then the media’s depictions, and descriptions, of the five youths proved to be the jury in which they were judged. The Exonerated 5, ranging from 14-16 years old, were not boys. Teen super-predators, a wolf-pack, feral beasts, monsters, teenage mutants. New York considered the youths anything but human.
Dr. Natalie Byfield, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at St. John’s University in Queens, stated in ABC News’ eight part series, One Night in Central Park, that she collected “a sample of 251 articles representative of the coverage” and found that only “twelve articles in that sample, not 12%, use the term ‘alleged’” when describing the youths. The media knew who they were and what they were. Guilty. Or so they thought.
In 2003, LynNell Hancock, now the director of the Spencer Fellowship for Education in The Journalism School at Columbia University, revealed in her piece, Wolf Pack: The Press and the Central Park Jogger, how members of the press questioned their rush to judgement both during trials and after the men were exonerated.
Anne Murray, police bureau chief for the New York Post at the time, recounted how she believed the case would have been covered differently had the victim not been white.
Sheryl McCarthy, an African American journalists who covered the case described the surprise she felt when she learned the ages of the accused teens (a fact seldomly highlighted) and the sense of feeling overwhelmed when she considered how many years of their lives they lost to incarceration for a crime they did not commit.
Jim Dwyer, a New York Newsday columnist at the time of the case, remembers sitting in on the first trial believing the teens were guilty. His skepticism, however, seemed to pique after the testimony of a detective. According to Dwyer, “…he was saying that the confessions were all in the kids’ voices… ‘On April 19, 1989, at approximately 20:30 hours, I was at the Taft Projects in the vicinity of E. 113th & Madison Avenue…’” One does not have to be an expert to know that teens do not talk like that.
Had the media gotten it wrong and contributed to the frenzy?
It depends on who you ask. One thing is certain, reporters, journalists, and editors have a duty to ask questions and to seek the truth. Otherwise, as Ms. Hancock simply put it, “…the wolfpack, now as in 1989, can be the media (Columbia Journalism Review, 2003).
Everyone needs to know their rights
Knowing the law can literally mean the difference between incarceration and freedom. In extreme cases, life and death. The Central Park case is an eerie reminder of why it is so important to know your rights. When the teens confessed, the million- dollar question was why would a person confess to a crime he didn’t commit?
The phenomenon is actually more common than people think. Given the deception and long hours of interrogations implemented by law enforcement agents, it would not be difficult to force a confession. And while juveniles are the most susceptible, parents also face challenges.
Even when parents are present for confessions they are sometimes “intimidated and uninformed about the risks their kids face,” (CJR, 2003) according to Monica Drinane, a judge in the Bronx County Family Court. “Sometimes parents unwittingly add the weight of their own authority to that of the police” (Drinane, CJR, 2003).
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offers several strategies to help people understand what to do and/ or how to respond during police interactions. Although it is still important to know state laws, their “Know Your Rights” section can serve as a good starting point to protecting citizens’ rights.
Accountability is essential to moving forward
In 2014, as a result of their wrongful convictions, the Exonerated 5 were awarded a $41 million settlement. While the men are adamant that the settlement in no way erases the invisible scars they carry, it does demonstrate the city’s attempt to acknowledge their wrongdoing more than twenty years earlier. But not all members of law enforcement, or officers of the courts, believed the men deserved to have their convictions vacated much less deserved a settlement.
Tim Clements, a co-prosecutor in the Central Park Jogger case, and Eric Reynolds, a police officer at the time, both stand by the original convictions of the Exonerated 5. In 2018, in interviews with New York Daily News, both men voiced their disappointment in the vacated convictions and settlement.
In 1989 Reynolds, a black police officer, had served for eight years when the Central Park case came about. He grew up in the Bronx housing project and believed the black community needed more “people willing to go and enforce the law and make life more livable” (New York Daily News, 2018). Reynolds was responsible for collaring two of the five accused teens (Raymond Santana, Jr. and Kevin Richardson) and for identifying a third (Antron McCray). At the time of the settlement Reynolds stated, “If we had gone to trial in their lawsuit, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because all of the facts would have come out… They did not want to go to trial. They just wanted to get paid (New York Daily News, 2018).”
Clements, who “sat second chair as a co-prosecutor for the District Attorney’s Office for both Central Park trials in 1990 and 1991 (New York Daily News, 2018), shared similar sentiments. He expressed being disappointed in the vacated convictions and the city’s decision to settle. Clements stated, “I don’t think that they were deserving of any settlement from the City of New York. I certainly thought that the facts were there to win the civil case. But at the point it would have been tried, there was such a strong narrative running against the police and the prosecutors…”
That narrative continues to run, especially against Central Park prosecutors Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein. Since the debut of ‘When They See Us,’ citizens’ outrage over the handling of the case has reignited. Lederer, whose Columbia Law bio describes her as an active prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney’s Office, recently withdrew her teaching application after students in Columbia’s Black Law Students Association started a petition demanding her removal. It garnered 10,000 signatures.
Fairstein, at the time of the Central Park case, was heading the “sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office” (Rolling Stone, 2019) and was responsible for overseeing the interrogations of the five teens. The case, and eventually convictions, earned her a national distinction and later catapulted her career as a mystery author. But her somewhat obscurity from the public’s eye as the lead prosecutor did not stay in the shadows. Felicity Huffman’s portrayal of Fairstein brought her role in the false convictions of the teens to the forefront.
Fairstein, disappointed in the portrayal, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in which she claims while vacating the Exonerated 5’s convictions for the rape and assault of the Central Park jogger is justified, she does not believe their possible roles in other assaults that night on joggers should be overlooked. Fairstein has sense resigned from the boards of Vassar College and Safe Horizon, has been dropped from her publisher, and last year had an award from the Mystery Writers Association rescinded after fellow members protested.
The justice system is often blind…to the truth
“And here, too, is the high whitewashed fence of the ‘stockade,’ as the county prison is called; the white folks say it is ever full of black criminals,- the black folks say that only colored boys are sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by forced labor” (W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, p. 92).
W.E.B. DuBois wrote those words over a hundred years ago, yet they still resonate today. In a world that has often painted black and brown boys as something to fear rather than humans, throwing them behind bars, even when there is no evidence to support such punishment, is as American as the KKK and goes as far back as the establishment of Jim Crow Laws.
When slavery was abolished black people were not completely “free.” Jim Crow Laws, also referred to as Black Codes, dictated much of their lives. From where they could work, live, and even use the restroom, Jim Crow Laws made it difficult for black people to live and made them even more susceptible to violence and incarceration. These laws were not limited to the south. As black people moved north to escape lynching, and populations increased, the north saw its fair share of the laws enacted to minimize black people’s access to employment, education, and recreation (history.com).
Jim Crow laws aided in filling prisons and feeding into prison sub-systems. Once imprisoned, there was the establishment of convict leasing. A system “developed to allow white slave plantation owners in the South to literally purchase prisoners to live on their property and work under their control” (Jarone Brown, reimagine.com, 2007). Chain gangs were another facet of the American prison system. First created as a road development project, prisoners being put to work on chain gangs, shackled around their necks as if on their way to a slave auction, was used well over a hundred years before it was banned in the 1950s (Brown, www.reimagine.come, 2007). While these systems were put to an end, they have reappeared in the form of prison labor exploitation. “Private corporations are able to lease factories in prison, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories” (Brown, www.reimagine.come, 2007).
Regardless of innocence or guilt, African Americans tend to make up a significant portion of the prison population. To stay on track with the Central Park Jogger case, a closer look into innocent people being convicted and incarcerated is needed. The Exonerated 5 gained public recognition of their innocence after Matias Reyes’ confession. DNA testing had a substantial role in confirming the Exonerated 5’s innocence as well as many wrongfully convicted people.
According to the Innocence Project, there have been “365 DNA exonerees to date, of which 225 are African American” (www.innocenceproject.org). 28% of the cases included false confessions from people 21 years old and younger, of which 10% had “mental health or mental capacity issues” (www.innoncenceproject.org).
The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) released a report in February 2017 highlighting connections between race and wrongful convictions in the United States. It was noted that, “Of all the problems that plague American criminal justice, few if any are as incendiary as the relationship between rape and race…It should be no surprise that racial bias and outright racism also play a role in wrongful convictions for sexual assault” (National Registry of Exonerations, p. 14, 2017).
The NRE went on to stress the percentage of African Americans impacted by racial bias. “Fifty-nine percent of sexual assault exonerees are African Americans, four-and-a-half times their proportion in the population…Black defendants also account for 40% of rape exonerations that do not include eyewitness mistakes. In some cases, the evidence that convicted the innocent defendant was produced by racially tainted investigations” (National Registry of Exonerations, p. 11, 13, 2017).
Indeed, the percentages are disturbing, but just as disturbing is the time wrongfully convicted people spent incarcerated. The NRE noted that wrongfully convicted people, dating back to 1989, spent “20,000 years behind bars… In 2018, 151 exonerations of innocent individuals… spent 1,600 years behind bars (about 11 years per person, on average)” (www.mielerymsza.com).
Although studying the systemic racism within the United States’ justice system does not make it easier to accept what happened to the Exonerated 5, it does make it easier to understand how such injustices are plausible. Their story, while it is neither the beginning nor end, does demonstrate how those young men were just one wheel in this massive machine called criminal justice. The lessons drawn out in this piece are just a few compared to the opinions of others familiar with the legal system, law enforcement, and most importantly, those that have lived through their longest nightmare. One can only hope that has a larger light is shone on issues related to false confessions, and racist practices in the justice system, that people take a closer look at a case and put the same amount of time into finding the truth as they do into covering lies. It would not only save the lives of the wrongfully convicted, but those that would be potential victims in the future as well.
ABC News. One Night in Central Park- Part 7. May 24, 2019).
American Civil Liberties Union. Know Your Rights. www.aclu.org/know-your-rights. Obtained June 21, 2019.
Bote, Joshua. Elizabeth Lederer, Central Park 5 prosecutor, resigns from Columbia after Netflix series. USA Today. June 13, 2019.
Browne, Jaron. Rooted in slavery: Prison labor exploitation. www.reimaginerpe.org. Obtained July 8, 2019.
Dickson, EJ. Who is Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor in ‘When They See Us’? Rolling Stone. June 7, 2019.
Griffin, Annalise. The climate: New York in 1989. New York Daily News. April 8, 2013.
Gross, Samuel, Possley, Maurice, and Stephens Klara. Race and wrongful conviction in the United States. National Registry of Exonerations. March 7, 2017.
Jim Crow Laws. www.history.com. March 13, 2019.
DNA exonerations in the United States. www.innocenceproject.org. Obtained July 3, 2019.
Miele & Rymsza, P.C. blog. The staggering statistics on wrongful convictions in America. Obtained July 3, 2019.
Pew Research Center. Chapter 1: I have a dream, 50 years later. August 22, 2013.
Rayman, Graham. Central Park Five prosecutor breaks silence, says it was mistake to vacate
convictions and pay off accused teens. New York Daily News, July 19, 2018.
Rayman, Graham. Lead police officer on the Central Park 5 case looks back on the savage crime that rocked the city. New York Daily News, July 19, 2018.
Terry, Don. In week of an infamous rape, 28 other victims suffer. The New York Times. May 29, 1989.
About the author: Latanya Muhammad is an advisor, group facilitator and freelance writer. Her writing has appeared on Reality Moms, Her View From Home, Blunt Moms, Mamapedia, marriage.com, and Midnight & Indigo. When she is not writing, she is wrangling her two children and husband. To read more of her work, or to connect, visit www.shetanagain.com and Shetanagain Writes on Facebook and Instagram.