'They are not the Central Park 5': Ava DuVernay’s series restores humanity of wrongly convicted boys
We spend the hour with Ava DuVernay, whose damning new four-part television series “When They See Us” tells the story of five teenagers of color from Harlem—four African-American and one Latino—who were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping and nearly killing a white woman out for a jog in New York City’s Central Park. The night that would come to define the boys’ lives was April 19, 1989, more than 30 years ago. In the sensational trial that followed, they became known as the “Central Park Five.” Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana served between six and seven years, and Korey Wise, the only teenager tried as an adult, served more than 13 years. In agonizing detail, “When They See Us” exposes the inner workings of a criminal justice system designed to fail people of color, laying bare the decades of trauma triggered by the boys’ wrongful convictions. It also looks unsparingly at those responsible for the miscarriage of justice, including Linda Fairstein, the head of the Sex Crimes Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, who spearheaded the case, played by Felicity Huffman. Since the series premiered, Fairstein has been forced to resign from several boards, including Safe Horizon, the Joyful Heart Foundation and her alma mater, Vassar College. Glamour magazine, which named Fairstein Woman of the Year in 1993, issued a statement saying, “Unequivocally, Glamour would not bestow this honor on her today.” Ava DuVernay says that her series reveals that “the system’s not broken; the system was built this way.”
AMY GOODMAN: When They See Us. Today we spend the hour with Ava DuVernay, whose damning new four-part television series tells the devastating story of five teenagers from Harlem—four African-American and one Latino—who were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping and nearly killing Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white investment banker who was out for a jog in New York City’s Central Park. The night that would come to define the boys’ lives was April 19th, 1989, more than 30 years ago.
In the sensational trial that followed, they became known as the Central Park Five. During the trial, the teens maintained their innocence. But in 1990, they were convicted. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana served between six and seven years, and Korey Wise, the only teenager tried as an adult, served more than 13 years.
The four-part Netflix series, created, written and directed by Ava DuVernay, follows the five teenagers from that fateful night in the park into adulthood. This is the trailer for When They See Us.
KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Is my mom here?
DETECTIVE ARROYO: [played by Bobby Daniel Rodriguez] It’s just us. You and us.
DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: [played by Bruce MacVittie] Who were you in the park with?
KEVIN RICHARDSON: I don’t know names. I just got lost.
DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Where did you see the lady?
KEVIN RICHARDSON: Who? What lady?
LINDA FAIRSTEIN: [played by Felicity Huffman] The female jogger was severely beaten and raped. Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect. I need all of them.
RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: [played by John Leguizamo] What’s going on with my son?
DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Your son was involved in a rape in Central Park.
BOBBY McCRAY: [played by Michael Kenneth Williams] What? No.
LINDA McCRAY: [played by Marsha Stephanie Blake] Wait a minute.
BOBBY McCRAY: No, that’s not possible.
LINDA McCRAY: Wait a second. Wait a second.
DETECTIVE MICHAEL SHEEHAN: [played by William Sadler] They saw you rape the lady!
YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] I didn’t see a lady or hit anyone.
KEVIN RICHARDSON: I didn’t see any lady.
DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Kevin.
KEVIN RICHARDSON: I didn’t see any lady!
SHARONNE SALAAM: [played by Aunjanue Ellis] I want to see my son right now. Right now!
RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] Whatever they said I did, I didn’t.
RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: I know. I know.
ELIZABETH LEDERER: [played by Vera Farmiga] Nothing these boys state matches the central facts of the crime.
LINDA FAIRSTEIN: All we need is for one to tie this whole thing together.
MICKEY JOSEPH: [played by Joshua Jackson] These tapes are not as clean as the state would have you believe.
NOMSA BRATH: [played by Adepero Oduye] There is injustice happening here.
MICKEY JOSEPH: There is not one shred of evidence.
ELIZABETH LEDERER: Imagine the frenzy of these teenagers ripping off her clothes!
MICKEY JOSEPH: They are innocent of these crimes.
ELIZABETH LEDERER: They are guilty!
COURT CLERK: [played by Edward Carnevale] As to the count of assault… As to the count of riot… As to the count of attempted murder…
KEVIN RICHARDSON: Why are they doing us like this?
RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: What other way they ever do us?
ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] I’ve been having these dreams. I keep hearing these footsteps, and they’re coming closer and closer.
LINDA McCRAY: That’s of me, coming to bring you home.
KOREY WISE: [played by Jharrel Jerome] They said if I went along with it, that I could go home. And that’s all I wanted.
BOBBY McCRAY: [played by Michael Kenneth Williams] The police will do anything. They will lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us.
ANTRON McCRAY: This is my life!
YUSEF SALAAM: I don’t think we should admit to something that we didn’t do.
ROBERT BURNS: [played by Blair Underwood] OK, we keep fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the Netflix series When They See Us. In agonizing detail, the series exposes the inner workings of a broken criminal justice system, laying bare the decades of trauma triggered by the boys’ wrongful convictions.
It also looks unsparingly at those responsible for the miscarriage of justice, including Linda Fairstein, the head of the Sex Crimes Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, who spearheaded the case against the five boys. She’s played by Felicity Huffman. Fairstein is now a best-selling author of crime novels. Since the series premiered on May 31st, Fairstein has been forced to resign from several boards, including Safe Horizon, the Joyful Heart Foundation and her alma mater, Vassar College, where she served on the board of trustees. Glamour magazine, which named Fairstein Woman of the Year in 1993, issued a statement saying, “Unequivocally, Glamour would not bestow this honor on her today.”
The five men, who came to be known as the Central Park Five, were all fully exonerated of the crime in 2002, after Matias Reyes, a man convicted of murder who was serving a minimum 33-year sentence, came forward to claim sole responsibility for the attack. His DNA matched the genetic material found at the scene. The five men, who came to be known as the Central Park Five, reached a settlement with New York City of $41 million in 2014.
Earlier this week, I spoke with the series’ creator, writer and director, Ava DuVernay. She was in Los Angeles. I began by asking her why she decided to focus on the Central Park Five.
AVA DUVERNAY: Well, we know the case—and I’m happy to be here. Thank you for having me. I always love to be with you. You know, we know this case is very famous, for those of us who track and follow the ins and outs, the ups and downs of the criminal justice system in this country. I was really interested in using the touchpoints that make it very contemporary, which is mainly kind of the Trump connection, which is really a small part of their overall story, but it is an entry point for people who are not paying attention otherwise. But then, also, I thought this case allowed for a beautiful jumping-off point to explore the system overall. So, in my mind, in creating it, I have this very famous case, that I know is of interest to people, but really this is about the criminal justice system. And each part of the series, or the four-part film, as I call it, is designed to take you deeper and deeper, to make you further acquainted with different aspects of the system as it stands today.
AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you start by telling us the story, for those who aren’t familiar with it? It’s hard to believe it took place so long ago. I mean, back in 1989 is when this story begins, in Central Park.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah, I’ll be brief. I mean, I think people who are watching should know this, or there’s a whole film I made where you can check it out. But, basically, in April 19—on April 19th, 1989, five boys—four black boys and a Latino boy—were arrested, over the course of a couple of days, for an incident that happened in the park, that turned out to be the rape and assault of a woman, just as you described, Trisha Meili. She was a—worked at Salomon Brothers, a white woman in her late twenties. And she was clinging to life. You know, very many people thought that she would die.
And so it became a huge story in New York City. It caught fire and became a huge national story and really a lightning rod for a lot of politicized rhetoric at the time, calling for the death, calling for the lynching—Pat Buchanan called for their public lynching—calling for the criminalization not just of these boys, but for all boys who were thought to be “wilding,” which we know is a manufactured word, thought to be “superpredators,” which we know is another manufactured word. And so this created this whole toxic environment that, you know, then had real-world effects in terms of the way that we see black and brown people in this country, particularly boys, and particularly around issues of criminality.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the part in When They See Us that depicts how New York Police Department officers interrogated 14-year-old Kevin Richardson.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: [played by Bruce MacVittie] Sooner you tell us what you know, sooner you go home. You got it?KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Yeah. Yes, Officer.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Detective. I’m Detective Hartigan. Let’s start with you telling us who you were in the park with.KEVIN RICHARDSON: I don’t know names. I just—I just got lost.DETECTIVE ARROYO: [played by Bobby Daniel Rodriguez] Sit up. This isn’t a game.KEVIN RICHARDSON: Is my—is my mom here?DETECTIVE ARROYO: She left. She wasn’t feeling well. It’s just us. You and us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Just you and us,” as Kevin Richardson, 14 years old, says, “Is my mom here?” Here’s another scene from When They See Us. We see Central Park Five member Antron McCray as he’s confronted by his father, Bobby McCray. The NYPD detectives interrogating Antron have just told his father outside the room to put pressure on his son, on Antron, so that he’ll tell them what they want to hear. And he is threatened. They ask about his past. They say they know that he served time in prison. They say they know where he works. He’s scared. He goes into the room alone with his son.ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] Dad, I ain’t rape no lady.BOBBY McCRAY: [played by Michael Kenneth Williams] Tron, I’m trying to tell you what you need to do to get your [bleep] up out of here. But you’re not listening to me.ANTRON McCRAY: I ain’t do this.BOBBY McCRAY: Doesn’t matter. You’ve got to listen to me.ANTRON McCRAY: No.BOBBY McCRAY: Tron, listen to me. Don’t [bleep] backtalk me.ANTRON McCRAY: You’re not listening—BOBBY McCRAY: Goddamn it! Why you not listening to me? Tron, these police will mess us up. They’re not playing. They’re not. Look, when the police want what they want, they will do anything. Do you hear me? Anything! They will lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us. I ain’t gonna let them kill my son.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Antron McCray with his father Bobby, as Bobby pressures him, thinking he will save his son. And this is a scene that shows another one of the kids of the Central Park Five, Raymond Santana, after hours—facing hours of interrogation by police detectives. His father has just returned after he had to leave to go to work, and he finds Raymond working on his confession.RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: [played by John Leguizamo] What’s going on?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] We almost finished here, Pop.RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: I mean, nobody told me nothing.RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: Pop, I got it.RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: Almost finished with what? What are you—what’s going on here? What are you doing?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: Don’t worry about.RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: Are you OK? ¿Qué hiciste?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: I got it.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: [played by Bruce MacVittie] OK, so, so Antron held her down while Kevin was raping her, right?RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: Wait, wait. What are you talking about?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: Right. Pop, stop.RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: What are you talking about, Ray?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: Pop.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Your son was witness to a rape in Central Park. So, Antron was raping her. Now, what were you doing?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: Nothing.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Come on, Ray. I mean, no one’s going to believe a kid like you would just stand there. You’ve got to put yourself in there.RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: No, no, no. Wait a minute. What do you mean, “put yourself in there”?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: Pop, stop. Stop.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: He was there.RAYMOND SANTANA SR.: You didn’t hear what he just said?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: Pop, stop. I made a deal.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ray Santana and his father, his father played by John Leguizamo. Ava DuVernay, one after another, these boys being pressured, and the police using their family members, their parents, their fathers, their mothers, to go after their kids, promising them they will be the one that’s freed if they just cooperate.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, a lot of manipulation in those rooms, a lot of preying on people who did not have a full knowledge, a full grasp, of their rights. And so, another reason why I feel this is so important. You know, you’d be surprised at how many people—we know it, and people who watch your show most likely know this case. You’ve reported on it before. You know, it’s around. But I’ve been shocked at how many people don’t know it. They’ve heard about it. They knew Trump tweeted about it. They kind of know something went wrong, but don’t really know the details. I’ve also been shocked by people who knew that they were convicted and incarcerated, but never knew that they were exonerated and freed.
And so, the goal is to really tell the full breadth of the story, but to firmly root it in the perspective of the boys. That’s why in these scenes, you know, they’re being constructed from stories that the men told me, for hours of research and working with the men, to really recreate, get them back to the place where they could tell me exactly what was happening to them in those rooms, with the goal of making sure that it doesn’t happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: In this clip of When They See Us, Yusef Salaam has been interrogated for hours by police detectives, before his mother arrives. Sharonne Salaam arrives at the police station, and the famous sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein isn’t going to allow her to see her son. So Sharonne threatens to call The New York Times, and then she’s allowed to interrupt the detectives, and confronts them, after comforting her son Yusef.SHARONNE SALAAM: [played by Aunjanue Ellis] I’m here. Look at me. Are you hurt? Are you?YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] Uh-uh, no.SHARONNE SALAAM: What is that?DETECTIVE JOHN TAGLIONI: [played by Patrick Gallo] Miranda card. He waived his right to an attorney.SHARONNE SALAAM: We’re not waiving any rights. You left a child, unaccompanied by a guardian or a lawyer, with these men, in this room, for hours! Shame on you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Sharonne Salaam confronting the sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein. And in this scene from When They See Us, the police interrogation of 14-year-old Kevin Richardson, who we saw before, after hours of questioning, Kevin alone, without a guardian or a lawyer, the detectives bring in Kevin’s sister Angie. By this time, they’ve written out Kevin’s confession for him and are trying to get Angie, his older sister, to sign it, too.ANGIE RICHARDSON: [played by Kylie Bunbury] “Touched her boobs”? Kevin.KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] No. No, Angie. No. I didn’t do anything.ANGIE RICHARDSON: Then why did you say that you did do it?KEVIN RICHARDSON: I didn’t do—I didn’t do that, Angie.ANGIE RICHARDSON: He’s telling you that he didn’t see nothing. So why are you making him sign this, when he’s telling you that he didn’t see nothing? You’ve got to put at the bottom: “I’m the one that didn’t do the rape.”DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: [played by Bruce MacVittie] OK, we’ll do that. You’ve got to sign right here. All right?ANGIE RICHARDSON: I’m not signing this.KEVIN RICHARDSON: Angie, please sign it.DETECTIVE MICHAEL SHEEHAN: [played by William Sadler] Come on! You want to take your brother home or not?ANGIE RICHARDSON: Yes.DETECTIVE MICHAEL SHEEHAN: ’Cause we can keep him.KEVIN RICHARDSON: No, no.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Angie.ANGIE RICHARDSON: I can’t sign this.KEVIN RICHARDSON: Please, just sign it. Please.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: Angie, just because you waive an attorney right now, it doesn’t mean it’s forever. Right?ANGIE RICHARDSON: I don’t even—DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: You get your brother home. You and your mother figure things out with a lawyer.ANGIE RICHARDSON: I have to figure this out.DETECTIVE JOHN HARTIGAN: We’ll clear this all up.KEVIN RICHARDSON: I don’t want to stay! Angie, I don’t want to stay here anymore! I’m tired of being here! I don’t want to be here anymore! Please sign it!
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the enormous pressure these children and these families are under, as each is thinking they can get out, talk about that. Not only you’re talking to the boys, but their families, because clearly there is enormous guilt here, as the parents were trying, often without lawyers, to figure out what to do, what to advise their children. At first, they were understanding that the kids are going to be charged with something like unlawful assembly. And soon it’s not only they’re witnesses to a rape, but they are the rapists themselves.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. I think it’s so important that people see the process, and that’s why I spent a whole part, a whole episode, the first episode, to really bring you into the rooms, because you’ll hear again and again from the side that opposes the truth of what actually happened: “Well, how could you sign something if you didn’t do it? Why would you say something if it wasn’t true?” I think what it’s really important to explore and to understand is the power dynamics that happen in a room, when you are, you know, poor, black, young, or brown, and you are in a room with a white authority figure who is a police officer, who’s telling you, “Do these things, and I will help you. Do these things, and it’ll be OK.” So, it’s really not, you know, difficult math to understand how one plus one equals, you know, these boys basically signing their lives away.
And so, you know, the time taken to explore what each boy went through, so that they’re not just a monolith, they’re not a big group called the Central Park Five, and you don’t know who they are, why they did what they did. Our goal was to bring you into the rooms to recapture these boys’ humanity and that of their families. We know that when you incarcerate one person, you incarcerate their family, you incarcerate their community. And very much so, we’re incarcerating whole generations of people. And so, that detail became really important for me and all the artists involved.
AMY GOODMAN: Ava DuVernay, creator, writer and director of When They See Us, the four-part Netflix series based on the infamous Central Park jogger case. We’ll be back with her in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “I Got It Made” by Special Ed, one of the songs featured in the series When They See Us. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with our interview with Ava DuVernay, the creator, co-writer, director of the new four-part Netflix series on the Central Park jogger case. I asked Ava why she chose the title When They See Us.
AVA DUVERNAY: It was very much around the idea of presenting the humanity of people. They are not the Central Park Five. I came to feel that that was a political moniker. It was something that was given to them by the press. It was something that was given to them by the prosecution. It was something that allowed them to be seen as a gang, as a wolf pack, and not as Yusef, Korey, Kevin, Antron and Raymond, you know, real people, real boys, with real families, memories, hopes, dreams, that were dashed the day that they were captured at a park in—
AMY GOODMAN: Who didn’t even all know each other.
AVA DUVERNAY: No, who didn’t—you see that, as well. It’s stunning. Most people—and the way that it was presented at time is this was a wilding pack of boys that went into the park to have fun and assault this woman, when in fact, you know, most of the boys—only two of the five boys even knew each other. The rest of them didn’t even know the names that they were saying. They didn’t know who they were implicating. And so, they’ve become brothers in this. They’ve become kind of crusaders for each other. But at the time, they didn’t know one from the other.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to the scene in When They See Us which takes place in a jail cell, when all of the boys, the five boys, are together for the first time since they were arrested and interrogated, except for Korey Wise.ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] I lied on you, too.RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] Yeah. Me, too. I’m sorry, man.YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] They made us lie. Right?KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Why are they doing us like this?RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: What other way they ever do us?
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s four of the five boys, talking to each other and saying, “I lied on you. I didn’t tell the truth,” as they were under all of this pressure, for hours, with these police detectives. And then there’s the family members of the boys, who are meeting ahead of the trial. And at this point the parents have now attorneys for the kids. In this scene, Peter Rivera, the attorney for Raymond Santana, delivers some important news.PETER RIVERA: [played by Chris Jackson] This case was assigned to Part 59 of the New York State Supreme Court. That’s Galligan’s court.ROBERT BURNS: [played by Blair Underwood] Why is that a big deal?PETER RIVERA: One, they didn’t spin the wheel. And—wait, what—what type of law did you say practice?ROBERT BURNS: I’m a divorce attorney. I handled Sharonne’s case.PETER RIVERA: Judge assignments are supposed to happen by spinning the wheel, so it’s random. They didn’t do that with this case. They gave it to Galligan. Rikers Island, they call it Galligan’s Island. Ten times out of nine he sides with the state. They don’t plan to lose this case.DELORIS WISE: [played by Niecy Nash] [bleep]
AMY GOODMAN: Galligan’s Island, they called it, Ava DuVernay.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, yes. You know, the chips were stacked against these kids through the process, through the systemic processing of the boys, because it certainly wasn’t based on evidence. There was no physical evidence. There was never any physical evidence connecting the five to Trisha Meili, to the site, not a piece of hair, not a drop of blood, not any any physical material. And so, there was no weapon. There were none of the things that cases are built upon when they’re properly processed. It was all the tapes.
AMY GOODMAN: But there was—
AVA DUVERNAY: It was all these coerced confessions.
AMY GOODMAN: There was semen. It just didn’t match theirs.
AVA DUVERNAY: It wasn’t theirs. That’s right. That’s right. I mean, there’s a point that you’ll see in the film where the defense is very excited that the semen is found, because they are 100% sure that their boys didn’t do it, and so it will show that there was someone else and that the case would turn. But when the chips are so stacked against, through propaganda, through political will, through things like, you know, the way that the judge assignment was done, through the spoiling of the jury pool by ads being taken out calling for the execution of these boys. This was two weeks after the crime. It’s before trial. So they did not have a proper jury. They didn’t have a proper judge. There were challenges with their defense in terms of the wherewithal to have a muscular defense. So, through this series, I try to show you all of the ways in which the system is slanted towards people who cannot defend themselves against the clutches of the state, when the state turns its attention your way.
AMY GOODMAN: As the Central Park Five case goes to trial, then-real estate developer Donald Trump paid $85,000 to publish a full-page ad in four New York newspapers, with the headline, all in capital letters, ”BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” Below the headline, the ad read, “I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them. … I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.” Later that year, Trump told NBC News he wished he was black. This is a clip from that interview, which is also featured in the second episode of When They See Us.DONALD TRUMP: A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. And I think sometimes a black may think that they don’t really have the advantage or this or that, but, in actuality, today, currently, that it’s a—it’s a great—I’ve said, on occasion, even about myself, if I was starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I really believe they do have an actual advantage today.
AMY GOODMAN: That was New York developer Donald Trump. Ava DuVernay, if you can talk about the ads? It was also the time the “wolf pack” was coined, that term.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. I mean, there’s a world in which I make this piece, and there’s an actual actor playing Donald Trump when we’re going into his gold-gilded buildings, and we’re following his thought process and the rhetoric that he was spewing at the time, the opportunity that he saw. And being an opportunist, he took it. But we don’t. What you’ve seen is pretty much the extent of how I deal with him, because my focus in this is not him. My focus is the voice of these men and their families and their communities.
So, there was an atmosphere at the time, that he certainly contributed to. You know, you have someone like Pat Buchanan, who also called for their death. He called for Korey Wise to be publicly hung. And there was an acceptance of this kind of rhetoric at the time, that led to a very dangerous environment, not just for these boys, but for black and brown people generally at the time. There’s a few short steps from this time to the 1994 crime bill. It was all a time that was doing great emotional violence and physical harm to people of color, who were very much at risk by these words, these intentions. And Donald Trump was a big part of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to When They See Us. This is attorney Mickey Joseph, who cross-examines an NYPD detective who’s testifying at a key point in their trial.MICKEY JOSEPH: [played by Joshua Jackson] You testified that it was Linda McCray’s idea to remove herself from the interrogation room.DETECTIVE HILDEBRANDT: [played by Jayce Bartok] That’s right.MICKEY JOSEPH: But isn’t it the fact that that was your idea, yours and Detective Gonzalez?DETECTIVE HILDEBRANDT: We all decided together.MICKEY JOSEPH: Detective Gonzalez testified that Antron told him that he had penetrated the jogger. But you just told the DA that Antron was very clear with you that he did not penetrate her. So, which is it, Detective? Because both of you can’t be telling the truth.ELIZABETH LEDERER: [played by Vera Farmiga] Objection. Argumentative.COURTROOM OBSERVER: He ain’t did nothing!LINDA McCRAY: [played by Marsha Stephanie Blake] Thank you.JUDGE THOMAS GALLIGAN: [played by Richard Bekins] Order! Order! Sustained.MICKEY JOSEPH: And because neither you nor Detective Gonzalez kept any notes of the interview, I guess we’ll just never know why a 14-year-old went from saying that he had never heard of a rape in the park to allegedly confessing to it.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is another clip from the series: Robert Burns, the attorney who represented Yusef Salaam, addressing the jury.ROBERT BURNS: [played by Blair Underwood] There was a strong motivation to solve and close this case as soon as possible. So, in comes my client, OK? Fifteen years old at the time, never been in the precinct before under any circumstances. And they work him and work him, until his mother comes down and puts a stop to the interrogation. It was neither a voluntary statement nor a truthful one. And the evidence to support it, it isn’t there, which leaves us room for reasonable doubt.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Yusef Salaam’s attorney Robert Burns, who’s played by Blair Underwood. He was a divorce attorney. And can you talk about this, the lack of experience of the parents? You know, this is the first time their kids are encountering the criminal justice system, and how fast they had to work to figure out: How could they save their children? I mean, you have, for example, The New York Times, a few days after the kids are picked up—this is April 26, 1989—the headline—and this is an editorial, Ava—”The Jogger and the Wolf Pack.” They were convicted long before this trial.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah. Before they even got into the courtroom, the decision had already been made. Public opinion had already been shaped. And it happened through so many factors. Imagine yourself being a parent who has a kid who’s never been in trouble, doesn’t even know how to maneuver and make their way through the maze that is the criminal justice system. They didn’t have the money. They didn’t have the know-how. And they did the very best that they could.
And so, it was important for me to show, along with the actors who portrayed these families, the real care, the real guilt, the real effort that they all exerted to try to save their sons. And they all stood by their sons every step of the way. From the moment that you saw the clip where the boys acknowledged that they’ve lied on each other, those men never again said that they did it. They maintained their innocence for decades after and endured great hardship in prison and in detention because of it. And their families did, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Ava DuVernay, creator, co-writer, director of When They See Us. Back with her in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “World I Never Made” by Dr. John, the legendary New Orleans singer, who passed away Thursday at the age of 77. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with Ava DuVernay, creator, writer, director of When They See Us, the new Netflix four-part series based on the Central Park jogger case. She joined us in Los Angeles. I asked her what happened to the five teens of color—four African-American, one Latino—after their wrongful convictions, particularly Korey Wise, the only one of the teens tried as an adult.
AVA DUVERNAY: The story of Korey broke my heart. When I got to know Korey and spoke with him, I learned so much about him. But in the first 15 minutes of meeting Korey, back in 2015, which is when I started this process, he told me, “There’s no Central Park Five. There’s four plus one. There’s four plus one.” And that always haunted me, and I wanted to know: Why did he think that? And I soon learned, through conversations with him, through examination of his records, what he endured. And it is hard to speak of, hard to shoot, hard to write, but, you know, even harder to have endured. And he did. He survived it. But it’s—it’s terrifying.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, brutality doesn’t even begin to express what happened to Korey in these adult persons. It doesn’t begin.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. And what you see in the film, I’d say, is about 70, 75% of what he really endured. You know, it’s—having been privy to what his real experience was, it’s horrific. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in 2002, the young men are now exonerated, after Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer who was serving a minimum of 33 years, came forward to claim sole responsibility for the attack. His DNA matched what was at the crime scene. I personally knew this case of Matias Reyes, because he raped a woman in my building, and that’s how eventually he was caught. But his MO at the time, as they were going after these young men, who lived at the top of Central Park—he had the MO of going after women, gouging out their eyes, raping them and attempting to kill them. He thought he had actually killed the Central Park jogger, I believe.
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, by focusing on these young men, they allowed him to continue his rampage. That shows the other side of the bigotry, of the racism. He continued to rape women, and then, ultimately, tells Korey Wise, bumps into him in prison, says, “No, I did it.”
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. You’ve described it perfectly. I mean, you know, the idea that the focus on these five boys to kind of wipe hands clean and to get a victory quickly, while allowing the real rapist to continue on—I mean, they knew. They knew, very early on, that they did not have these boys. They had to have. They had no evidence. They knew that they were helping these boys contrive stories. And so, to do that and to allow whoever did this vicious assault to roam free is, I think, one of the tragedies of this that’s not talked about hardly enough. I mean, Matias Reyes had a—they didn’t know his name at the time, but they knew that there was a rapist out there who had a very specific MO. He worked alone. He had a very specific way that he went about his assaults. And this guy was on the loose. It matched exactly the way in which Trisha Meili was attacked and raped. And yet they turned a blind eye toward that, because they had these five boys, these vulnerable boys. They had gotten them to say what they wanted to say. And it was a story that, to be frank with you, the media really ate up. And it proved a win for the New York PD at the time that it really needed one.
AMY GOODMAN: And some of these detectives were the same ones dealing with the Matias Reyes case. It’s absolutely astounding. So—
AVA DUVERNAY: Yes. I mean, I think it’s important to name names. Michael Sheehan was the same detective on both. It also had the same judge, Judge Galligan, the same judge, whom—I mean, they’re looking at all of this evidence and are not able to parse out and kind of do the job to see where the real contrasts were, where the similarities were, because there was this ferocious—this fervor to put away the five.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the young men, after they get out of prison, they are exonerated. In 2016, Yusef Salaam joined us on Democracy Now!, and I asked him about how then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was continuing to say that Yusef and the other young men were guilty.YUSEF SALAAM: You know, first, thanks for having me on your show.Donald Trump has the absolute, ultimate ability to fact-check everything about this case. One of the things that’s really surprising is that you have one of the jurors saying, you know, he was going crazy, there was no evidence, no blood on the guys, but they confessed, and so that was that, you know. But when you look at the nature of the confessions, when you look at the nature of what happened to get the confessions, how these confessions didn’t match anything that the other guys were saying, you know, and then all of a sudden, 13 years later, the truth comes out, and here you have a guy who talks about what happened at the crime scene, talks about when he struck the woman over the head with a tree branch, talks about dragging her into the woods—and key evidence that no one else had mentioned is that she was tied up with here own jogging outfit—you know, Donald Trump has the ability to look at all of this stuff and to put the truth out there.But I think that it’s more attractive to him to be divisive, to be negative. He’s calling it a positive thing that he did back in 1989. I mean, we’re talking about—this crime happened April 19, 1989. On May 1st, Donald Trump had already taken out the ads. It was being ran in New York City’s newspapers, calling for the death penalty to be reinstated. What was happening was that we were given a social death. We were being tried in the media, and they were getting ready to lynch us, in public and through the court system. You know, if I had a show, I would tell Donald Trump he was fired. All of the things that he’s exhibiting today is very, very disturbing. Nobody who is seeking presidency should even have any kind of shady, dark past like Donald Trump. He’s definitely not the man for these United States of America.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is Raymond Santana speaking on Democracy Now! in 2012, four years before Yusef.RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: I served almost seven years. And so, what happened was that, you know, I tried to get my life back together and put one foot in front of the other, but I didn’t—you know, I didn’t realize the social death that we were given as a sentence. You know, this wasn’t a 5 to 15 or 5 to 10; this was a life sentence, a death sentence, in a sense, because, you know, when I came home, I couldn’t get employment. You know, I tried out—filled out numerous applications. And, you know, I had to register as a sex offender. You know, my whole neighborhood looked at me, you know, kind of strange. You know, you get the “Hi, how are you doing?” but, you know, you always have that bullseye on the back, you know, that says, someway, somehow, I’m Raymond Santana from the Central Park jogger case.You know, my family shunned away from me, so I thought I was all alone. I had—you know, there was nowhere I can turn. There was no transitional programs for me to come back into society into, and so—and be productive. And so I crashed. And I didn’t know what to do. And I turned back to crime, and I started selling—you know, I started selling drugs. And I got charged—and I got arrested, and I was charged with criminal possession with the intent to distribute.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in 2014, the city settled with these five young men for $41 million. They were exonerated. And yet you hear Yusef Salaam dealing in 2016, during the presidential campaign—he said that Trump should be fired from the presidential campaign—dealing with Donald Trump continuing to campaign against them and saying he did not believe that they were innocent. Ava DuVernay?
AVA DUVERNAY: You know, $41 million doesn’t bring your youth back. We can all think back to when we were young, when we were free, when we were learning, when we were blossoming, when we were engaging with the world in new ways. These boys were behind bars. Korey Wise was in an adult prison, held in adult prisons during that time.
You know, $41 million, split between the five, does nothing to the fact that no one’s ever apologized for this. The city’s, part of their settlement was no apology. Linda Fairstein still maintains that they did it. Elizabeth Lederer, who prosecuted the case, still maintains that they did it. And so, you know, it’s—that’s a pain that they bear that is greater than a dollar amount can be put on. And my great hope is that this piece of art can tell their story loudly enough so that the rest of us can apologize for letting this happen. The public was complicit. The press was, as well.
And we need to be able to demand change when it comes to these cases. This is not an anomaly, this case. You know, it’s not hard to believe that there are five black and brown boys somewhere being interrogated or pulled off the street for something that they didn’t do, that there are people we know behind bars who are only there because they can’t pay to get out, that, you know, the majority of people who are behind bars right now in this country have never seen a trial. The system’s not broken; the system was built this way. It was built this way. And so it’s important for us to understand what it is, so that we can dismantle it and start again. It’s truly—I don’t think it’ll be in my lifetime or yours, but this work is important to continue to talk about what has happened here and to bear witness to it, with the goal of making sure that there’s a foundation of knowledge laid so that we can get to a place where it doesn’t continue to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Ava DuVernay, we want to thank you so much for being with us, writer, the producer, the director of independent films, including the just-released four-part Netflix series based on the Central Park Five case. It’s called When They See Us. She’s the creator, the writer, the director. She’s the winner of the Emmy, BAFTA and Peabody Awards and an Academy Award nominee. She’s also the director of Selma, the criminal justice documentary 13th and Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. Thank you so much for being with us, Ava.
AVA DUVERNAY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: While Linda Fairstein, the head of the Sex Crimes Unit who spearheaded the case against the five boys—the real person who committed the rape, Matias Reyes, was still on the loose. He had beaten and attempted to rape a woman in Central Park on April 17, two days before the jogger was assaulted. That first victim gave the police a description of him, saying he had stitches on his chin. A local hospital then gave the police the name Matias Reyes and someone who fit that description. The police never followed up on that lead.
After the five boys were arrested, Reyes went on to beat and rape five women, murdering one of them, Lourdes Gonzalez, a pregnant mother of three. Matias Reyes was eventually captured when his last rape victim ran down her building’s stairs screaming as he fled and the doorman tackled him. Reyes confessed to several of his crimes, including murder.
Had Fairstein and the New York police investigated the crimes in which Reyes had repeated his MO again and again, rather than racially profiling and framing the five teenage boys, perhaps those rapes and the murder of that young mother might have been prevented.
Journalist Roland Martin tweeted, quote, “It is my sincerest desire that the @ava @WhenTheySeeUs @netflix series does for @LindaFairstein and #ElizabethLederer what the @lifetimetv doc #SurvivingRKelly did for @RKelly and his career.”
That does it for our broadcast. Pacifica station WBAI gave voice to the families of the five boys for years.