The Importance of the Events Behind the Netflix Series "When They See Us"

Disclaimers: There are “spoilers” in this article. If you plan to watch in the future (or promptly after reading this article) and want to go in with no knowledge of it, don’t proceed with this article. I do not own any of these images, owners credited at the bottom. Please also be aware that there will be mentions of violence and rape in this article. 

The Netflix series “When They See Us” tells the tragic story of five boys once known as the Central Park Five, now to be referred to as the Exonerated Five. Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise were collectively fourteen through sixteen years old in 1989. These men are played by incredible actors in the show, as children and then as adults. Jharrel Jerome is the only actor who plays both the child and the adult. Each performance is spectacular, but Jerome’s will make you have to pause the show and cry for maybe an hour. He also won an Emmy for his performance yesterday. See his beautiful speech here.

In the spring of 1989, these five young boys were arrested, coerced and beaten into confession to a crime they did not commit: the rape and beating of Patricia Meili. Patricia Meili was jogging in Central Park that night, and when she was found, she was barely clinging to her life. These five boys were sentenced to from five to up to thirteen and a half years in prison, despite the complete lack of evidence that they committed these crimes. Four of the boys went to juvenile detention until they aged out to adult prison, however, Korey Wise (16 at the time) went directly to Rikers Island. Rikers Island has historically been referred to as one of the most brutal prisons in America. Wise spent thirteen and a half years there. I could talk about the case for hours, but if you want more detail, watch the show. Google it. Learn about it so that we can work on never allowing it to happen again. 

Before I began writing this article, I rewatched the Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now interview/documentary on Netflix. There isn’t an accurate way to describe how strong, how brave, how unbelievably amazing these men are. I can feel a heaviness in my chest when I listen to them speak about their experiences, and about their lives are now.

“Life was over [when the verdict of guilty was read]. A fourteen year old boy couldn’t see past tomorrow.” — Raymond Santana, from Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now

On April 18th, 1989, the Exonerated Five were just kids. Yusef was riding skateboards, climbing trees, and he said on the Oprah interview that the most romantic thing he had done at the time was walking around the lake holding hands. He kept these memories with him in prison. Kevin was balancing playing trumpet with school, and life in general. He dreamed of playing for Syracuse University — and never got to live that dream. During the Oprah interview, Kevin said at that time he was naive and he wishes he could go back to that. Antron played sports, he hoped to grow up to be a baseball player. Raymond loved hip hop music, shopping at the Gap with his dad, sketching, and said he was just enjoying the moments of being young. Korey, as stated on the Oprah interview, “was just being Korey.” The innocence of being young was ripped from these boys the day they entered the precinct. They were interrogated at the station for seven hours, some longer, not given food or water. They hadn’t slept. They gave coerced false confessions. Raymond, Antron, and Kevin gave these videotaped confessions without the presence of a parent. 

When the “Central Park Five” became the “Exonerated Five”

In 2002, a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the brutal rape and beating of Patricia Meili, exonerating the five men. Santana, McCray, Richardson, Wise, and Salaam filed lawsuits against the city of New York. In 2012, the men were given money ($3.9 million each) after a settled suit. The prosecutor from the case, Linda Fairstein, has since resigned from the boards she was on and has lost book deals after the show came out.  However, the city has never apologized to these men for what was done.

Four of the Exonerated Five have wives and children. All five have lives past the horrendous trauma they experienced at such a young age. This, in no way means they are healed from it. The men have said it is a daily struggle. In the Oprah interview, she asks Antron if he would feel peace getting help, going to therapy. He says no. Oprah asks him, “do you feel broken?” To which he responds, “Yes ma'am.” 

“What did I learn about the criminal justice system? I learned that that’s the wrong name for it.” — Joshua Jackson who plays the defense attorney on When They See Us, during the Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now special. 

So, now that you’ve processed all of this information. You’re staring at your computer screen or your phone screen, your heart aching. This happened thirty years ago, why does it matter now, in 2019?

The simple answer: this is still a problem we face today. Ava Duvernay said, “the system is not broken. It was built to be this way. It was built to oppress. It was built to control.” Some people don’t live to see the day they get exonerated. 

No one person can solve this problem. We know the story. We can read more stories. We know that this is immensely important, and we know that this is still happening today in 2019. 

According to Abigal Blachman of Injustice WatchIn Chicago in an article for AP News, there are many innocent men of color in the Cook County system who will have to wait up thirty or more years for their cases to be re-seen and retried. These men were also beaten and coerced into false confessions. From the Innocence Project website, “According to the National Registry of Exonerations, in the past 25 years 38% of exonerations for crimes allegedly committed by youth under 18 years of age involved false confessions…” 

There has to be enough goodness in people to make this stop. 

The Innocence Project wrote an article on When They See Us, you can find it here. The Innocence Project is an organization that “exonerate(s) the innocent through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice” according to their website. The Innocence Project is only one of the ways we can contribute to fixing this injustice. 

Thank you to Ava Duvernay for telling the stories of the Exonerated Five. Thank you to the Exonerated Five for continuing to fight when it felt impossible. Thank you to everyone who sees this issue, and fights to end it. I’m with you. 

P.S. If you need a little positivity: earlier this September, Syracuse University announced a scholarship in Kevin Richardson’s name, awarded to students of color with a financial need. He was also gifted a Yamaha trumpet and a Syracuse basketball jersey. 

Image Credit: 1, 2, 34, 5