When Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries When They See Us took social media by storm on its May 31st release, I initially ignored the explosive response. Though the general details of the Central Park Jogger case seemed faintly familiar to me, I’d read and seen enough material about injustice towards Black people at the hands of police and the justice system for a lifetime. I initially had no interest in learning about yet another miscarriage of justice; this was a spectacle I would take no part in. Or so I thought. No longer being able to ignore the universally positive praise for the miniseries, I eventually sat myself down and watched the first episode. The day was June 7th, 2019 and I haven’t been able to get this case out of my head since.
For those of you who may reside under rocks, When They See Us is a dramatized recount of the aftermath of the rape and assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park on April 19th, 1989. Five Black and Latino teenagers were falsely convicted of the crime, only for those convictions to be vacated when the actual perpetrator of the crime confessed over a decade later.
After watching the series (and crying for three hours straight) I had but one question: how did this happen? No DNA found at the crime scene matched the five teens, none of their confessions (later revealed to have been coerced by police) matched the others’, and none of them could even correctly describe details of the attack, such as what the jogger had been wearing or how she had been hurt. Knowing the facts of the case, it’s easy to say common sense should have freed the boys long before they were, but truly, when you look at the many chances police and prosecution had to step back and examine the lack of evidence connecting these boys to the attack, it’s hard to understand how and why the case turned out the way it did. I should rephrase, it’s easy to understand why the case turned out the way it did. It’s hard to stomach how the case’s outcome ended up being what it was, despite no concrete evidence pinning the crime to the boys.
“How did this happen?” The question rang through my head for days after finishing the Emmy-nominated series. I cannot tell you how many articles I read and interviews I watched trying to make sense of the case days after watching When They See Us. Eventually, my research led me to a documentary, which was based on a book written about the case.
In The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes, author and filmmaker Sarah Burns concisely presents the facts and details of this case, and how the state of New York in the 80s helped contribute to the false convictions. Growing racial tensions, rampant drug use and crime, a frenzied media, and over a century of racial oppression towards Black Americans at the hands of white men helped expedite the conviction of five teenagers for a crime in which there were virtually no witnesses, conflicting facts, and little forensic evidence.
It is a harrowing read. At only 212 pages, eight of them dedicated to pictures of those most central to the case, The Central Park Five is not heavy in terms of length, but the content was incredibly difficult to swallow at times. Even getting through the first chapter was difficult, and most of it doesn’t even focus on the jogger case.
Burns details the state of 80s New York that set the tone for the response to a crime like the one committed on April 19th, 1989. Crime was on the rise and people were afraid. Crack had destroyed neighborhoods and sent New Yorkers spiraling into chaos. Women were attacked in subways, muggings were common, children walked to school with knives for protection. Crime was commonplace in communities of color, where drugs hit the hardest, and so the consensus was that New York’s destitute state was the fault of Black Americans and other citizens of color. When whites took matters in their own hands and defended themselves from the perceived threat of Black Americans, such as in the 1984 subway shooting, the Howard Beach incident, and the murder of Yusef Hawkins, it only furthered the city’s racial divide. It also didn’t help that the media heavily reported on crimes committed by Blacks against whites to push the narrative of black-on-white crime, even though crime seemed to be happening everywhere and to everyone. New York in the 80s sounded like the absolute last place anyone would want to be. White Americans thought it was their right to protect themselves and their communities from the encroaching threat of Black Americans since police forces lacked the resources to do so. Black Americans, no strangers at all to racial violence for even minor offenses had to deal with danger within their own communities and surrounding communities.
So on April 19th, 1989, when a white woman had been found raped and nearly beaten to death in Central Park, the same night that a group of about 30 Black and Latino kids were assaulting joggers and homeless people, the response was explosive. The pressure was on to find the person(s) responsible for the attack, and police made several arrests in connection to the crime. Dubbed the “Central Park Five,” five teenage boys were convicted of the rape and assault, though it would be revealed over a decade later none of them had anything to do with the crime and were coerced by police into confessing under the guise that they would be allowed to go home if they cooperated.
Burns did an incredible job presenting the facts of this case. I have nothing but the utmost praise for her concise and detailed words. Her book lacks the emotion of When They See Us, but her words are powerful, and the impact of the situation along with the subtle acknowledgments of police incompetence was not lost. From the very beginning, she never questions the teenagers’ innocence. She merely shows how a savvy prosecution manipulated inconclusive evidence, a vague timeline, witness accounts, conflicting facts, and shaky confessions from the teenagers themselves to help incarcerate them. It didn’t help that powerful public figures, such as Mayor Ed Koch and D*nald Tr*mp professed without question the teens’ guilt. Koch sarcastically used the word “alleged” when talking about the teens, even though a political figure such as himself should adhere to a little something called “innocent until proven guilty.” The orange one called for the return of the death penalty for the teens. Representation during the trials either lacked the skills to properly defend their clients or were simply more invested in getting time in front of the cameras to help bolster their own careers. Quotes from various publications show how the media helped sway public opinion that the teenagers were guilty of the crime long before they even went to trial. Animalistic terms referring to the boys as “beasts,” “savages,” a “wolfpack,” were printed almost from the time they were arrested to the conclusion of their trials, and these were all terms used in the turn of the twentieth century to justify violent acts against black men who dared to cross boundaries with white women. There’s a glaring historic connotation behind the response to the accused teens, which laid the foundation for this mess of a case. The explosive and often bloodthirsty response to the accusation of black men raping a white woman in the Central Park jogger case hearkens back to post-Civil War years, when lynchings of black men were a common response to such accusations, even if there was little evidence to support it.
While this is far from a happy read, it does provide fascinating insight and detail into this historic miscarriage of justice. If you’re anything like me and are curious to know as much as there is to know about the Central Park Jogger Case, this book is a fantastic place to start. Burns provides even the most minor details of the case and follows a clear timeline beginning with the years that set the precedent for New York’s racial divide to the attack, the court cases, the boys’ imprisonment, and the confession that led to their release. Again, I have nothing but praise for this book, and I so appreciate Ms. Burns for sharing the case with us in such wonderful, heartbreaking detail.
“I think that everybody here – maybe across the nation – will look at this case to see how the criminal justice system works… This is, I think, putting the criminal justice system on trial.”
– Mayor Ed Koch, April 21, 1989
I’m not sure why my fascination with this case has been so strong since watching When They See Us. A lot of people don’t care to keep reliving these kinds of injustices, and then there are weirdos like me, who want to know literally everything there is to know about them. By all means, if you consider yourself one of those weirdos, read this book. At least watch the documentary. It includes interviews from reporters, jurors in the case, and those at its center, the Central Park Five themselves.
Director of When They See Us, Ava DuVernay, insists that this title, “Central Park Five,” which was put upon the boys by a media that judged them guilty before they even went to trial, no longer be used. Today we know them as the Exonerated Five. Their names are Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Korey Wise.