The real story behind Netflix true crime drama When They See Us

New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer revisits the story of a group of black and Hispanic teens who were wrongfully imprisoned for rape in 1990

Ethan Herisse as Young Yusef Salaam, and Aunjanue Ellis as Sharonne Salaam

Three years after delving into the relationship between racial prejudice and mass incarceration in the United States with her Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, acclaimed director Ava DuVernay is back on Netflix with a dramatisation of one harrowing real-life case: the Central Park Five.

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The four-part series, When They See Us, follows Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, a group of black and Hispanic teens who were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park on 19th April 1989.

In 2002, after most of the boys had served their prison sentences (Wise, the only one who was tried as an adult, was still incarcerated), a serial rapist came forward and admitted to committing the crime. DNA evidence later backed up his claim.

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The drama spans a 25 year period, from the night of the five’s arrest to their settlement with New York City in 2014, which saw them awarded $41 million dollars after their convictions were overturned.

But what are the real events that inspired Ava DuVernay’s series, and how closely did she stick to them?

RadioTimes.com spoke with The New York Times’ Jim Dwyer, who covered the case at the time, in order to get to grips with what happened and why.

Here’s the true story behind When They See Us.

What is the real story behind When They See Us? 

“The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective; it grew in the soils of a rancid, angry, fearful time” – Jim Dwyer

“The city was at the end of nearly four decades of decline in population, wealth and economic activity,” Dwyer tells RadioTimes.com. “Guns were cheaper, more lethal and more available than ever. There were five or six murders a day, and many more non-fatal shootings.

“Violence was peaking, and most of it was localised to poor neighbourhoods, which, in my opinion, was why it was tolerated. Any breach of class or race boundaries, though, caused a panic that amplified an individual horror and stirred the mainstream press to pay attention. That’s what happened here.”

What happened on the evening of 19th April 1989?

Yusef Salaam (2)

On 19th April 1989, 28-year-old white jogger Trisha Meili was severely beaten and brutally raped in Central Park. Her body was dragged over 300 feet to a shallow ravine, where she was left for dead.

That same night, a group of ~30 black and Hispanic teenagers roamed the park. Some caused trouble, attacking cyclists and mugging passers-by.

Five teens – 14-year-olds Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, 15-year-olds Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam and 16-year-old Corey Wise – were arrested by New York police a few hours before Meili was found, and police later connected them to the attack.

They all initially denied any involvement in the rape, or any other crimes that took place in the park that night, but after hours of interrogation they each pointed the finger at one of their peers, and confessed to have been involved in one way or another.

They signed confessions and appeared on video stating that they had witnessed one of the others rape Meili. Many details in their statements – including the location, and description of the events – were at odds with forensic evidence.

What happened next?

Yusef Salaam (right), accused in New York City Central Park Jogger incident. (Photo by Don Halasy/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
Yusef Salaam (right) on the way to his trial

There were protests against the city’s decision to take the young boys to trial.

“Most of the skepticism was in African American and Latino communities, which had more familiarity with the injustices associated with law enforcement,” Dwyer says.

“It was not far fetched that young people had confessed to something they hadn’t done. Interestingly, some prominent white figures in the Catholic Church in New York stepped forward and urged people to cool the rhetoric, worried that the truth could get washed away in the tides of anger. The DNA era was just starting, and had not yet opened the eyes of many people to the real possibility of false confessions.”

In 1990, two trials took place. In the first, Salaam, McCray, and Santana were convicted of rape, assault, robbery, and riot. In the second, Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, assault and robbery, and Wise was convicted of sexual abuse and assault.

How long were the Central Park Five in prison?

McCray, Salaam, Richardson and Santana were all handed the maximum sentences for juveniles, 5-10 years. Wise, on the other hand, at 16-years-old, was tried as an adult, and sentenced to 5-15 years.

Here’s how long they all served:

Raymond Santana: 7 years

  • Kevin Richardson: 7 years 
  • Antron McCray: 7 years
  • Yusef Salaam: 7 years 
  • Korey Wise: 13 years.

When were their charges overturned? Who was the real perpetrator?

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 06: Rape and serial murder suspect Matias Reyes, 18, is taken by detectives from the W. 82d St. station for booking. (Photo by William LaForce Jr./NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Rape and serial murder suspect Matias Reyes, 18, is taken by detectives from the W. 82d St. station for booking

In January 2002, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who was active in New York City around the time of Meili’s attack, confessed that he had committed the rape. He was already serving a 33 years to life sentence for the murder and rape of a 24-year-old pregnant woman on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“DNA tests not only proved his involvement,” The New York Times reported at the time, ”but also showed that physical evidence had been wrongly used at two trials in 1990 to implicate the five teenagers.”

Then, on 6th December 2002, the office of Manhattan’s district attorney submitted a report to the State Supreme Court asking for the reversal of the convictions that sent the Central Park Five to prison. In it, he explained that an 11-month re-examination of the case had found forensic evidence that Meili was beaten and raped by one man – Reyes – not five.

The convictions and charges were voided on 20th December that same year.

“I had been skeptical of the case when it was tried, finding it implausible that the confessions recited by the detectives had come from the mouths of 14 or 15 year olds, and also struck by the lack of physical evidence linking any of the five to such an intimate and bloody crime,” Dwyer said.

“But I’d forgotten those doubts after the case ended and the years went by. So when Reyes’s account surfaced in 2002, I was dubious of his story. Then my reporting partner, Kevin Flynn, and I, picked through the records of the original cases and were struck by how flimsy and contradictory they were on nearly every essential point. That astounded me: how wrong we had all been, and how history had ossified around fiction.”

Where are the Central Park Five now?

Korey Wise runs the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law School, which offers free legal counsel to the wrongfully convicted. He is the only member of the Central Park Five who stayed in New York City.

Antron McCray lives with his wife and six kids in Atlanta, Georgia. In May, he told The New York Times that he still has complicated feelings about his relationship with his father.

“Sometimes I love him,” he said. “Most of the time, I hate him.”

He added that he is “damaged” by what happened to him in the past.

“I’m damaged, you know?” he said. “I know I need help. But I feel like I’m too old to get help now. I’m 45 years old, so I’m just focused on my kids. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do. I just stay busy. I stay in the gym. I ride my motorcycle. But it eats me up every day. Eats me alive. My wife is trying to get me help but I keep refusing. That’s just where I’m at right now. I don’t know what to do.”

Yusef Salaam is a public speaker and writer who lives in Georgia with his wife and ten(!) children. In 2016, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from then-President Barack Obama.

 Raymond Santana is the founder of an apparel company called Park Madison NYC. He is  a film producer, and he tweeted DuVernay in 2015 with the idea of making a film about the Central Park Five case, sparking her interest.

Kevin Richardson is a public speaker, who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two daughters.

“I want everybody to know that we’re survivors of this and we don’t want to see another Central Park Five,” he told The New York Times. “We don’t want to see another Scottsboro Boys. We don’t want to see another Emmett Till.”

Who is Linda Fairstein?

The former head of the Sex Crimes Unit at the office of Manhattan’s District Attorney, who oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park Five. In the series, she is played by Felicity Huffman.

She is also a best-selling author, known for her novel series based around fictional Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper.

Fairstein left the DA’s office in 2002, before the convictions were overturned (she announced her plan to retire in 2001, before Reyes came forward).

In 2017, she consulted with Harvey Weinstein’s legal team on a case in which a young woman had accused the producer of groping her. She put Weinstein’s lawyer in touch with her successor at the Sex Crimes Bureau. She told the NYT that she believed that the woman’s complaint was unfounded.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 30: Author Linda Fairstein attends Safe Horizon's 2014 Champion Awards at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on April 30, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)
Former prosecutor Linda Fairstein

In an interview with The New Yorker in 2002, she stood by her conclusion from the original Central Park Five investigation.

“I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids,” she said. “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, not only in the other attacks that night but in the attack on the jogger.”

In 2018, the Mystery Writers of America announced that Fairstein would receive the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Grand Master Award, but rescinded the decision two days later, citing “a controversy in which she was involved” about which the organisation had previously been unaware.

After When They See Us was released on Netflix, #CancelLindaFairstein trended on Twitter, and Raymond Santana publicly supported a petition urging booksellers and publishers to cut ties with the writer and stop the promotion and sale of her novels.

How was Donald Trump involved in the Central Park Five case?

Two weeks after the attack, long before the teenagers had been incorrectly found guilty of the crimes, Donald Trump – then a real estate investor with a thirst for press attention – took out $85,000 worth of newspaper ads, calling for their execution.

“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” Trump wrote. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

Remarkably, during the height of his presidential campaign in October 2016, he doubled down on his message, despite their convictions having been vacated in 2003.

“They admitted they were guilty,” he said in a statement to CNN. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.”

How much money did the Central Park Five win from the state after their convictions had been voided?

In 2014, the men were awarded a $41m settlement, about $1m for each year spent in prison, though the state neglected to take responsibility for the wrongful convictions.

“The City of New York has denied and continues to deny that it and the individually named defendants have committed any violations of law or engaged in any wrongful acts concerning or related to any allegations that were or could have been alleged,” the settlement, obtained by the New York Times, states.

Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam each received $7.125m, while Korey Wise, who served nearly 13 years in prison, received $12.25m.

What about the jogger’s story?

The Central Park Jogger tells her story in the New York Times bestseller I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility. Trisha Meili breaks her silence in the book fourteen years after her attack made headlines. The book doesn’t cover the actual attack as Trisha has no memory of it, but she does share anecdotes of her reunion with the doctors and nurses who helped her, how she felt testifying in court and what her first jog after the attack was like.

The Central Park Five has also been republished in light of the Netflix series. Originally published in 2011 the book lays out the facts of the case. The book was pitched as the untold story of one of New York’s most infamous crimes.

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When They See Us is released on Netflix on Friday 31st May.