The Lessons of ‘When They See Us’

On May 31, Netflix premiered a new show called When They See Us, a four-episode series depicting the injustice of the Central Park Jogger case. The show became an overnight cultural phenomenon. Since its debut, it has become the most-watched show on Netflix and has sparked a social conversation about race, police misconduct, the faults in our criminal legal system, the politics of law, and the fundamental meaning of justice.

When They See Us is ‘true crime’ done right. The source material is inherently interesting, and the series features strong direction and captivating performances from all of its core actors, many of whom are relatively unknown. It’s an important show, one that Emily Nussbaum wrote makes something “that might easily be unwatchable not merely watchable but mesmerizing.”  As with other dramatic tellings of real events, the show has the power to not only entertain, but to educate and inspire. Despite the crime and trials occurring three decades ago, there are still many lessons to learn from it. The criminal legal system provides a unique and telling window into who we are as a culture and as a society, and deconstructing injustices such as those experienced by the Central Park Five presents an even starker portrait.

What happened in the Central Park Jogger case?

On April 19, 1989, twenty-eight-year-old Trisha Meili—a successful, attractive, white woman with a successful career in the financial industry—went jogging in New York City’s Central Park. Her body was found early the next morning. She’d been raped and beaten, left to die overnight in the cool spring night. The crime was heinous; Meili lost more than three-fourths of her blood and was in a coma. Surprising many, she made it, but suffered permanent damage, and was unable to recall anything about the attack.

That same night, a large group of teenagers ran through the park, engaging in what authorities and the media referred to as “wilding.” Some members of the group harassed some passersby, beat up a homeless man, and generally caused trouble. When police arrived, the group scattered, and several were arrested.

In the end, the police focused on five boys whose ages ranged from 14 to 16: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. They were interrogated without lawyers and without their parents, some for more than 20 hours, using a variety of manipulative and psychologically intense techniques and strategies. Eventually, all “confessed” to the crime, although Salaam’s mother appeared and stopped the confrontation before her son signed a statement. Amidst a media firestorm and widespread public outcry, and despite no physical evidence linking them to the crime, all five were convicted. Four of them were sent to juvenile facilities; Wise, who was sixteen at the time, was charged as an adult and sent to Rikers Island, an adult facility in New York notorious for its violence and corruption.

Santana, Richardson, McCray, and Salaam each served five to seven years; Wise served more than twelve. Ironically, it was his lengthy stint in prison that eventually triggered the chain of events that led to their exoneration. While incarcerated, Wise had a run-in with another inmate, Matias Reyes, who was incarcerated for rape. Reyes admitted to the crime and said that he acted alone. He knew details that were unknown even to investigators and were verifiable, and the DNA matched.

In 2002, the Central Park Five were exonerated. In 2014, they settled a civil lawsuit for $41 million. The case is an important one that, as I’ve previously written, “stands as an infamous stain on the fabric of American criminal justice, displaying the fragility and vulnerability of the system to error.”

What can we learn?

The Central Park Five case is a tragedy on many levels, and When They See Us portrays the experience from the perspective of the boys and their families. There is much to learn from the case; lessons which should long ago have been heeded, but which are still necessary today. The below list is not exhaustive or comprehensive, but include some of the key lessons that, as a criminology professor and an innocence scholar who has been studying this issue for a decade, hope viewers learn as they watch the drama unfold.

Yes, Innocent People are Sometimes Convicted

Even today—a full 30 years after the first DNA exonerations in the United States and 15 years after the founding of the Innocence Network—there is still skepticism and disbelief about the existence of wrongful convictions. However, even a cursory look demonstrates that, beyond dispute, innocent people are sometimes wrongly convicted. And although we can only estimate how often it occurs, the best estimates suggest that as many as 6% of prisoners and about 4% of people sentenced to death may be innocent. There are more than 2.1 million people incarcerated in the U.S. and more than 2,700 on death row, meaning there may be more than 12,000 innocent prisoners and more than 100 innocent death row inmates in the United States today.

Police Interrogations Can Lead to False Confessions

Although it seems counter-intuitive—few people would readily say that they’d falsely admit to anything, let alone a violent crime—it is beyond dispute that people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit. Moreover, it may not be rare. In fact, about 12% of known wrongful convictions—299 of the first 2,465 exonerations—involved a false confession. Moreover, about one-fourth of homicide exonerations involved a false confession. Psychologists and legal scholars have uncovered many reasons for false confessions, and they are varied. Some, called situational factors, have to do with the nature of interrogations and the tactics used by officers. For example, how long the interrogation lasted, and whether the officers lied to the suspect. Others, called dispositional characteristics, have to do with the person being interrogated. Among known false confessions, three groups are consistently over-represented: suspects suffering from mental illness, suspects suffering from mental retardation or developmental disabilities, and juveniles.

Yes, Juveniles are at a Greater Risk of Falsely Confessing

A variety of developmental limitations put juveniles at greater risk for falsely confessing, particularly when confronted with intense and manipulative interrogation strategies. These range from adolescent immaturity, to increased suggestibility, to lack of comprehension of legal procedures and rights. The Central Park Five, all between 14 and 16, were interrogated, without lawyers or parents, for dozens of hours. Such a practice is a recipe for false confessions.

The Adversary System Doesn’t Always Work

In theory, the United States’ adversarial system of justice is supposed to pit two equally-matched sides (the prosecution and the defense) against each other in front of a neutral arbiter (the judge) and fact-finders (the jury). If this is done properly, the truth should emerge. Presumably, issues such as coerced and false confessions would come to light and such errors would be mitigated to the extent possible. However, the system is, by its very nature, based on probabilities. Guilt must not be proven with absolute certainty, but beyond a reasonable doubt. A high threshold, no doubt, but one that still leaves room for error. And those errors can and do result in wrongful convictions.

A Good Lawyer Can’t Always Prevent Wrongful Convictions…

One key element of the adversarial system is having competent defense counsel. However, even a good or great lawyer cannot always overcome a system that is slanted in favor of the state, despite their best efforts.

…But a Bad or Unqualified Lawyer May Make Things Worse

And having an incompetent or unqualified lawyer can be a death knell. Inadequate defense is a common trait in known wrongful conviction cases. In some, the issues are egregious, such as defense attorneys who fell asleep or were intoxicated. But in others, it may simply be luck of the draw, depending on what court-appointed lawyers are available. A defendant may end up stuck with an attorney who has little or no experience in the type of case at hand. For instance, Yusef Salaam’s attorney was experienced as a divorce lawyer.

There is Capital in Legal Success

The defense is positioned across the courtroom from the prosecutor. According to the American Bar Association, the prosecutor should be an “administrator of justice,” whose “primary duty…is to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict.” However, time and again, we have seen that there are gains to be made through legal success, particularly in high-profile cases and even if it comes at the expense of others. The Central Park Jogger case was certainly high-profile, and people made their careers on that case. Linda Fairstein, for instance, was the head of the District Attorney Office’s sex crimes unit. She is portrayed in When They See Us as bullheaded, determined to plow over the five boys and secure a conviction. After the case, she went on to become a champion in the law enforcement community and a bestselling author of crime novels. Similarly, prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer continued her legal career and became a teacher at Columbia Law School. When promotions and raises and a spotlight are at stake, legal actors may abandon their idealistic roles and opt for the more pragmatic, self-centered approach to the law.

Social Context Can Influence the Legal Process

 Although not highlighted to a great degree by the show, the New York City in which the crime and trial occurred was not the same one we see today. In the 1980s, the city “was rife with social problems: fear of terrorist attacks, the growing AIDS epidemic, homelessness, failing school systems, and increasing levels of crime.” The people of New York were on edge, and a brutal crime, committed against an attractive and successful young white woman, supposedly attacked by a group of black and brown youngsters, in a space that was seen as a refuge amidst the chaos of the City, created a spark that grew into a wildfire.

 Old Racial Prejudices Still Cloud the Criminal Legal Process

That wildfire was spread through bias, prejudice, and outright racism. The boys—teenagers, kids, we must remind ourselves—were labeled as animals and beasts. They were a “wolfpack” who were “wilding” and rampaging through the park. The story was eerily reminiscent of other cases where black and brown men were portrayed as savages who could not control themselves. We can read about the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, or the murder of Emmett Till in the 1950s, or the ‘Career Girl Murders’ of the 1960s,  or the Ford Heights Four case of the 1970s. The list goes on—case after case of black men punished, through the law or extralegal means, of offenses against white women. In all of these cases, we can see, as law professor N. Jeremi Duru argued, the consistent proliferation of the “myth of the bestial black man.”

…But Those Prejudices are Not Always Overt

Unlike decades past, where people’s prejudices were often obvious and visible to anyone who looked, the racial prejudices that influence today’s legal process are sometimes less overt. We don’t often see a group of white men in Klan robes lynching a black man for allegedly whistling at a woman. Instead, racial biases and prejudices and disparities have been formalized and institutionalized through our legal system. From the behaviors that are defined as crimes to the punishments for those crimes, from police practices to mass incarceration, racism has become embedded in our criminal legal system. The modern era of mass incarceration is, as Michelle Alexander has argued, the “New Jim Crow.”

The Media Can Influence the Process

The social context that influences the legal process, and the prejudices and racism that taint it, can be proliferated through the media when a case generates enough public interest and buzz. Media often capitalize on cases that instill fear and drive anxiety; as the classic saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” In a city like New York, and with a savage crime that involved a victim and suspects who are ideal from the perspective of telling a provocative news story, it’s no surprise that media and public outcry ran high. It didn’t help that prominent politicos and social figures also spoke loudly against the boys; now-President Donald Trump spent tens of thousands of dollars to take out full-page newspaper ads urging New York to “bring back the death penalty.” Such an environment is a dangerous one in which to search for truth and justice.

Loved Ones Suffer, Too

One of the most interesting and important aspects of When They See Us is that it shows the case from the perspective of not just the defendants, but their families. It is well-known that mass incarceration has profound effects on not just inmates, but their entire families—significant others, children, friends, and communities. The same is true, perhaps even more so, in the case of wrongful conviction. Researchers have demonstrated that wrongful convictions create a bevy of post-release problems that must be navigated by not only the exoneree, but their loved ones as well.

Errors Beget More Harm

When officials erroneously pursued the Central Park Five and police failed to investigate Matias Reyes, they allowed a rapist and murderer to remain free. Reyes went on to commit even more violent crimes. And this case is not unique. As professor James Acker has written, there is a “flipside injustice” to wrongful convictions, in that they generally mean that the guilty party is not caught. And many of those guilty parties go on to commit additional crimes, which political scientist Frank Baumgartner and colleagues call “crimes of wrongful liberty.”  When the criminal legal system gets it wrong, it is not just the defendants and their families who are affected. The original victims never get any real sense of justice and is forced to relive a traumatic case that was thought to be closed, and new victims may be created when the real offender continues to commit crimes. Wrongful convictions leave in their wake a destructive path, or a “circle of harm,” that extends to many people.

Stories Are Powerful

More than anything, I hope people are moved by the story told in When They See Us. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine someone watching this series and not feeling something. Stories are powerful—they help us make sense of the world around us and to find our place in it. They can expose us to previously unknown facets of life that we may otherwise never see. Stories also can help be a catalyst for calls to action. After its release, When They See Us was trending on Twitter and has become the most watched show on Netflix. The series has sparked widespread outcry. There have been calls for Donald Trump to apologize (though he has refused to do so) and to boycott Linda Fairstein and reopen her old cases (the Manhattan DA has said he won’t reopen her cases, but her publisher has since dropped her, and she has stepped down from several board positions). Amidst public pressure, prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer has resigned from her position as an instructor at Columbia Law School. None of these steps can undo what was done to the Central Park Five and their families. It cannot give them back the years and experiences they lost. And, in the big scheme of things, they’re minor things; baby steps, if you will. But they were a long time coming, and baby steps are still steps. I am often skeptical of outcry through outlets such as Twitter—the court of public opinion can be a dangerous, unruly, and unfair place—but in this case, it seems as though it has mostly been used for the better.


Four of the Central Park Five as adults. From left to right: Salaam, Wise, Richardson, and Santana. Source: Maysles Documentary Center, via Flickr)

Want to Know More about the CP5? Further Readings and Recommendations

If you haven’t watched When They See Us, I highly recommend it. The show tells an important story. Watch it, and try to absorb its lessons.

If you have seen the show and want to know more, I highly suggest you look through the case profiles of the Central Park Five on the websites of the Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations. I also recommend Sarah Burns’s book, The Central Park Five, and watch the documentary by the same name, directed by Ken Burns.


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