I have been watching the four-part Netflix series “When They See Us,” a powerful dramatic retelling of the story of the so-called Central Park Five or the “Wilding Case” that occurred in 1989. There is also a 2012 documentary by Ken and Sarah Burns about this notorious case. A group of black teenagers took off on a so-called “wilding” incident into Central Park just south of Harlem. There were some cases of harassment of white people and one bicyclist was attacked and beaten. The police arrived and most of the perpetrators escaped, but four young teens were arrested, one of them had been knocked unconscious by the police. They were 14 and 15 years old and had been on the periphery of the wilding, not involved in any of the fracas, they had gone along to see what was happening.
Unknown to them, some time afterwards, miles away further south in the Park, a different incident occurred, a young white woman jogger Trisha Meili was viciously beaten and raped and left for dead. The police and the prosecutor decided that they had these young blacks in custody and it “couldn’t be coincidental” that these two events had occurred. So they decided to treat these black teens as the perpetrators and see what they could get out of them.
From this point on the police and the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, behaved like in a police state, like criminals. They warned the boys and their parents to waive their right to an attorney, they warned the boys to cooperate if they wanted to go home, they used threats, intimidation and violence, and coerced confessions out of these boys. A friend of one of the boys had accompanied him because they could not find his mother, so they grabbed him too. They lied to the boys that their friends had confessed and had said that they were the guilty one, so they had better cooperate, and they kept the boys for up to 30 hours, without food and without a parent present as required by law!! Only one of the mothers had the guts to stand up to the police and tell them to back off and she took her son out of custody, but they charged him anyway.
The five boys were put on trial for the beating and rape of the jogger under a basically hysterical media coverage that had essentially found them guilty already. At no point did the prosecutor or police consider any other explanation for the crime. In the Court it was pointed out by the defense that the boys were at least 20 mins walk away from where the attack occurred, that there was no-one who had identified them as being anywhere near the location, that although there was copious blood at the scene of the beating and rape there was not a spot of blood on any of the boys, that the boys had no record of previous misconduct at all, let alone violence, that of two samples of semen found at the scene the DNA did not match any of the boys. Yet, purely on the basis of the recorded interviews, some conducted after a long day of intimidation and coaching, some that were clearly coerced, the boys were found guilty! Luckily the victim did not die, so they were given 5-15 year sentences and they served between 5 and 14 years. Korey Wise who was 16 at the time, was sent to a an adult prison and beaten and spent years in solitary confinement. The others were sent to juvenile facilities. Since they were found guilty of rape and assault, they were labelled as sex offenders and those that were released had to report every day to the police station and had their addresses publicized.
The thing to remember is that they were completely innocent of these charges, they had nothing whatsoever to do with this assault and rape. Years later, in 2002 a serial rapist, Matias Reyes, an illegal immigrant serving a life sentence for previous rapes and beatings, confessed to the crime. He gave police details of the attack that no-one else could have known and his DNA, that was on file with the police from the beginning, matched that found at the scene of the crime. You would have thought that if the prosecutor and the police actually wanted to solve this crime and catch the perpetrator (a silly notion), when the DNA found at the crime did not match those of the 5 youths, they would have searched their DNA database. But, they did not, even though Reyes had been arrested one month before for a similar crime, and even though he was subsequently in police custody and found guilty for a series of similar rapes in Central Park.
The convictions of the Five were vacated in 2002 and they sued New York City for unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, racism and emotional distress and won between them m$41. But, as one of them said, no money can buy back their youth.