Propaganda Posing as Documentary
The new Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, brings the Central Park Five back into the limelight.
The Five were convicted of brutally gang raping a white jogger in 1989. Four were black, one Hispanic, and all were between the ages of 14 and 16. The case dominated New York City headlines and inspired Donald Trump to pay for pro-death penalty ads in the New York Times.
In 2002, a convicted serial rapist named Matias Reyes claimed sole responsibility. Mr. Reyes’s DNA was the only match to evidence from the crime scene. The state vacated the Five’s rape convictions, and in 2014, New York City awarded them $41 million. Liberals claim the case proves America’s justice system is racist. Yet many have shown there is plenty of evidence the suspects were involved in the crime.
When They See Us ignores that evidence. For black filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the Five were railroaded by police racism and a criminal prosecution.
The original incident took place on April 19, 1989, when more than 30 young blacks and Hispanics descended on Central Park for an evening of “wilding.” In the series they are just running through the park, having a good time.
Not so. “People were punched in the face and pulled off their bicycles and robbed of their watches,” says New Yorker writer Ken Auletta. They beat one white school teacher so badly police said he looked like he had been “dunked in a bucket of blood.”
The series does show a few people assaulting two people, but the Five are appalled and don’t join in. Brutal police officers chase and catch most of the suspects. One smashes 14-year-old Kevin Richardson’s face with a helmet.
Soon after the arrests, police find Patricia Meili, the raped jogger, almost dead. Sex crimes investigator Linda Fairstein suspects the young men attacked her and orders the police to get confessions. Police use physical force, lie, threaten, and deny food and toilet breaks. The suspects eventually break and confess to the rape; all but one confesses on camera.
Naturally, the justice system is racist. Outmatched in court, outwitted by racist cops, badly served by bungling lawyers, the Five are convicted because of the taped confessions. Four go to juvenile detention, and 16-year-old, Korey Wise, goes to adult prison. Five good-natured boys’ dreams are crushed by a vicious system.
The main villain is Linda Fairstein, an arrogant, blond-haired white woman who ignores evidence to get convictions. She’s what blacks call a “Beckzilla:” a white woman using her “privilege” to destroy non-whites. Miss DuVernay’s miniseries is so effective that the real Linda Fairstein lost her book publisher because of When They See Us—though she has now written her own defense against the series’ reckless portrayal.
The other villain is Donald Trump. He appears in old television interviews about the death penalty ads. The show insists he is racist and partly responsible for the unjust verdict. He personifies America’s racism and injustice.
The actors don’t look like the suspects. The short actor playing then-14-year-old Kevin Richardson looks younger than 14. Mr. Richardson looked much older than 14 in 1989, and was taller than his arresting officers. The series portrays the other four similarly.
The show claims the teenagers learned about the rape during interrogation, but some had mentioned it unprompted earlier. One said he “didn’t do the murder” but he knew who did (initially, the jogger was expected to die). Mr. Richardson told police “Antron [McCray] did it” before authorities even knew about the rape. In response to a joke that he should be out with his girlfriend, one teenager told a cop he “already got some.” As Raymond Santana was driven from one police station to another, he told police, “I had nothing to do with the rape. All I did was feel her tits.” A friend of Mr. Wise said he told her he held the victim down but did not rape her.
None of this is in the series, in which The Five stoutly deny they were involved.
In the series, the “wilding” is good-natured fun, but the Five were convicted of assaults that still stand. In a 2002 story casting doubt on the rape convictions, The Village Voice wrote:
It is important to remember, in any examination of the public record of this flawed investigation and prosecution, that even if these five youths, or at least some of them, were not guilty of rape or sexual assault, they were not innocents—having been convicted of a whole series of other crimes committed in the rampage that night. One need only recall that among those crimes, two men, John Loughlin and Antonio Diaz, were horribly beaten and left bleeding and unconscious.
One of The Five, Yusef Salam, testified in court that he brought a 14-inch metal pipe—a weapon used in the attackers—to the park that night, but the series downplays the “wilding.” In court, a stereotypical “Becky” complains that young blacks made weird sounds as she and her husband bicycled past them. The blacks in the audience guffaw at what is portrayed as petty and racist. In fact, Patricia Malone was almost raped. “It was actually terrifying,” she told ABC News last month. “They were ripping at my arms and legs and clothing. As a woman, you immediately wonder what’s going to happen.” She and her husband managed to get away.
The film gives a false impression of Mr. Wise’s time in prison. According to police, he became a prison gang leader. In the series, he is brutalized by gangs but never joins one.
There are also questions about the relationship between Mr. Wise, and the confessed rapist, Matias Reyes. Authorities think Mr. Wise’s gang may have intimidated Mr. Reyes into claiming sole responsibility. The two got into a fight early in Mr. Wise’s prison term, but in the series this is a dispute over a television.
The series claims Mr. Reyes decided to confess because of his new-found Christian faith, but police are skeptical. His past crimes included an attempted rape in a church. Mr. Reyes was already serving a life sentence for a brutal rape and murder, so an additional conviction made little difference to him.
The show treats Mr. Reyes’s confession as absolute fact, but this story is thin. He claims he caught the jogger on his own. Police doubted this because Miss Meili kept a 7-and-a-half-minute mile pace for her run; Mr. Reyes was chubby and unathletic. Mr. Reyes also claimed he attacked Miss Meili with a tree branch and a rock. She had what looked like cut wounds, but Mr. Reyes said he didn’t use a knife.
The doctors who saved the jogger’s life thought a group of men attacked her. Dr. Robert Kurtz told The Wall Street Journal in 2014 that “there had to be another individual or a group who inflicted injuries with a sharp-edged instrument if he [Reyes] only used a blunt object.” Dr. Jane Haher said there were visible handprints on Miss Meili’s thighs, calves, ankles, and behind her knees. She thinks “people held her legs down while somebody did this horrible act.”
At the time of the trial, authorities knew that at least one attacker had not been caught. As Central Park Five prosecutor Tim Clements explained to the New York Daily News last year, “We told the jury that the DNA that had been analyzed matched someone else. When Reyes came forward it was a relief. . . It’s not surprising that he (perhaps) was with this group or joined it later.”
Mr. Clements thinks the state should not have vacated the Five’s convictions: “I thought there were a lot of factual inaccuracies and some of the logic and the conclusions were faulty. The facts and the law supported the convictions. I was very disappointed that they vacated the convictions without even a hearing, without even an opportunity to question and examine Reyes.”
In When They See Us, aggressive white cops force the suspects to confess. The case’s lead officer, Eric Reynolds—who is black—strongly disputes this. “There was no coercion,” he told the New York Daily News in 2018. “If they all said the same exact things, then maybe I would think that. But they didn’t. Look at the video statements. They stand up and demonstrate [what happened].”
He also noted that the statements were obtained while Miss Meili was in a coma: “If we’re railroading them, how do we know when she comes out of the coma what story she’s going to tell? If you are trying to pin it on someone, why would you risk that she would say something different?”
Mr. Reynolds does not even appear in the series.
The prosecutor, Mr. Clements, also says there was no coercion. “Liz [Lederer, the lead prosecutor] was doing interviews in a room with an open ceiling,” he told the Daily News. “My job was to make sure everyone was quiet so the interviews wouldn’t be interrupted. There were parents present. In that situation, you can’t coach them, you can’t tell them what to do.”
The New York City Police Department re-investigated the case in 2002 and concluded there was no coercion. In the series, the main trick police use is to convince the suspects that if they confess to rape they can go home. Even a low-IQ 14-year-old knows that isn’t true. Why did the Five confess when the other suspects did not?
Mr. Reynolds, like many involved in the case, is incensed that the city settled without a trial. “If we had gone to trial in their lawsuit, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because all the facts would have come out,” he said. “It would have been clear they participated and Reyes didn’t act alone. The evidence supported it. They [the Central Park Five] did not want to go to trial. They just wanted to get paid.”
Prosecutor Clements also thinks that if there had been a new trial, the Five would have lost.
Another person who doesn’t like the settlement is the victim. “I so wish the case hadn’t been settled,” Miss Meili told ABC last month. “I wish that it had gone to court because there’s a lot of information that’s now being released that I’m seeing for the first time.” She still believes she was attacked by a group.
Of course, When They See Us leaves all this out. It has a simple message: our racist justice system framed five innocent young persons of color. It is propaganda posing as a documentary.