Disclaimer: discusses rape and sexual assault
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us dramatically recreates the experiences of a group of five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted and jailed for the horrific assault and rape of Trisha Meile as she jogged alone in Central Park, New York in 1989.
The boys: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, all aged between 14 and 16, were presumed guilty from the start. Police detectives withheld food and sleep from them for hours and coerced them into giving false confessions of their supposed crimes, without the presence of any lawyers. The story made national news and the boys became known collectively as ‘The Central Park Five’.
Santana was told by police that they had evidence against Richardson and that if he placed himself in the crime scene, he could go home. They lied to Salaam, telling him his fingerprints were found on Meili’s shorts. The boys’ descriptions of the victim’s clothes and injuries were all different and no DNA evidence linked them to the crime scene. Meile herself had no recollection of the events, due to her head wounds.
Only the confessions of the boys were recorded and not the hours of intense interrogations, lies and deception of the police. None of the teenagers admitted to committing the rape themselves, instead claiming that another boy had performed the act, thus implicating all of them to the crime. They recanted their statements, to no avail.
They were ultimately found guilty and sent to prison for 10 to 15 years, but in 2002 were found to be innocent, as a serial rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, confessed to the rape of Meile. DNA evidence and his testimony of events confirmed his confession. The Central Park Five later sued the City of New York for their handling of the case, being awarded $41 million in 2014.
With these developments, the perception of the Central Park Five has shifted. It is now remembered as a huge miscarriage of justice and detrimental to New York’s race relations, as the media fixated on the rape of a white woman supposedly committed by a group of black and Latino boys. There were 28 other attempted or actual rapes in New York in the same weeks as Meili’s, the victims mostly being black or Latina women. Their assaults did not generate the same amount of outrage as the Central Park attack did.
But to some, in the face of all evidence, the Five are still guilty… including to US President Donald Trump.
Trump’s history with the Five began in 1989 after he took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers calling for the execution of the boys, with the headline ‘BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!’. He wrote that the teenagers ‘should be executed for their crimes’ and serve as an example to other criminals, despite the fact that the case had not been concluded in court.
A few days after the publication of the ad, Trump appeared on CNN to defend his claims saying that he did not see how his comments could be seen as ‘inciteful’ and that he was not ‘pre-judging’ the teenagers but rather only advocated for their execution if they were found to be guilty and if Meile died of her wounds.
On the other hand, Michael Warren, a New York civil rights lawyer who represented the Five, believes that the advertisements ‘poisoned’ the minds of many New Yorkers and the jury. Michael D’Antonio, author of Never Enough, a biography of Donald Trump, argued that ‘he was aligning himself with law and order, especially white law and order’ and did so on purpose.
Trump made his comments three decades ago, so perhaps it’s wrong to hold him to these old comments. Yet, to this day he maintains the guilt of the men, despite their exoneration by the legal system.
Following the release of a documentary on the case in 2012, 12 years after Meyers had stepped forward as guilty, Trump wrote on Twitter that the film was a ‘one-sided piece of garbage’ that did not explain the ‘crimes’ of the Five whilst they were in Central Park. In June 2013, when asked by a Twitter user if he believed the five men were innocent, he deflected, asking ‘Innocent of what – how many people did they mug [sic]?’
He called the settlement for $41 million a ‘disgrace’ and in 2016, a month before the US presidential election, Trump stood by his opinion that the five men had attacked Meile, pointing to their confessions, long discredited as coerced, as evidence of this.
The Central Park Five documentary was a one sided piece of garbage that didn't explain the.horrific crimes of these young men while in park
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 24, 2013
The release of When They See Us has rekindled discussions of the US president’s attitudes on the case. Asked if he would apologise for his past comments on the case in June of this year, he maintained that ‘they admitted their guilt’ and that ‘if you look at some of the prosecutors, they think that the city should never have settled that case. So we’ll leave it at that’.
The long history between Trump and the Central Park Five, beginning with his calls for their execution and his unchanged opinions despite evidence of the men’s innocence prompted Yusef Salaam, one of the wrongly convicted, to say in 2016 that he was scared to see that:
he has not changed his position of being a hateful person […] he has not changed his position of inciting people […] he’s still the same person and in many ways he has perfected his sense of being that number-one inciter
Trump’s inciteful language of the media and illegal immigrants has sparked much controversy, but he started thirty years ago with the case of the Central Park Five, in which he attempted to appear on the right side of history by siding with law and order and still refuses to admit their innocence.