How the ‘Central Park Five’ Changed the History of American Law

By Elizabeth Hinton, The Atlantic

When They See Us  is primarily focused on the racist logic of the policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood. (ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA / NETFLIX)

When They See Us is primarily focused on the racist logic of the policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood. (ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA / NETFLIX)

Coverage of violent crime is a staple of American news, yet only a handful of stories capture the attention of the nation. Even fewer go on to inform the trajectory of American legal proceedings. The acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay tackles one of the most significant criminal cases of the 1990s with her miniseries When They See Us, which premiered on Netflix on May 31. In four episodes, DuVernay provides the most complete account of the impact of the “Central Park Jogger” case on the lives of the defendants and their families.

On April 19, 1989, police found the body of a 28-year-old white woman in New York’s Central Park. She was covered in blood and nearly dead after a brutal sexual assault. Trisha Meili, the injured party, was not the only victim of the night’s horrific events. So, too, were Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray—the kids, ages 14, 15, and 16, who were wrongfully convicted of her attack. Despite no DNA evidence, fingerprints, blood, or semen linking any of the black and brown boys to the crime, all five defendants grew up in prison, each one spending between six and 13 years behind bars.

When They See Us is primarily focused on the racist logic of the policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood. The series also profoundly illuminates some inherent problems in American criminal justice from a range of perspectives. Viewers get an intimate glimpse of mothers, fathers, and siblings fighting for the freedom of their loved ones; law-enforcement authorities classifying these same boys as “animals”; and protesters on both sides holding signs, declaring “it’s not open season on women or the real rapist in court today is the New York police and the D.A.”

Ultimately, the hysteria surrounding the Central Park Jogger case gave rise to new language about black-youth crime, and to new laws that caused more children to stand trial as adults than at any other time in American history. When They See Us gets the audience closer to understanding why juvenile and adult prison populations exploded through the 1990s, and how the United States became home to the largest incarceration system in the world.

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