‘When They See Us’ exposes an unjust criminal justice system

July 7, 2019, 11:12 a.m.

The miniseries “When They See Us” takes audiences back to the infamous case of the Central Park Five, in which a group of young black and Latino boys were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a jogger. Now among the most-watched shows in Netflix history, their story has reinvigorated a cry to fix our broken criminal justice system — serving as a resounding reminder of the inequality that plagues it.

Writer-director Ava DuVernay transports us to the streets of New York City in 1989, where rampant racial tension, staggering crime rates and a drug epidemic constitute a cesspool of misery. On Apr. 17 that year, a white jogger named Trisha Meili is brutally raped in Central Park, nearly losing her life — the same night that 30 to 32 teenagers reportedly commit a range of unrelated assaults in the park. 

Fourteen suspects are rounded up for the rape and other attacks. Police interrogations last hours, with suspects sometimes unlawfully denied parental presence or legal counsel. After promises of release and other ploys intended to turn them against each other, five of the boys give in, hopeless, conjuring up false confessions. 

“The police will do anything. Lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us,” says one boy’s father to his son in the show. Linda Fairstein, then head of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, denies that the police used coercive tactics. 

During the grisly trial, the prosecution maintains a narrow focus on the boys’ taped confessions. “When They See Us” depicts the defendants’ desperation to prove their innocence, with an additional spotlight on their families and how the case affects their lives. Media outlets refer to the five boys as a “wolf pack,” and then-real estate tycoon Donald Trump even spends $85,000 on an ad to call for the death penalty. As the storyline progresses, we notice how hastily the world decides to villainize the boys, without ever stopping to think that they may be the victims.

Despite DNA samples not matching the suspects and the lack of any other physical evidence, we see the jury pronounce the defendants guilty. Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray and Raymond Santana are convicted on counts of assault, robbery, riot, rape, sexual abuse and attempted murder.

Though he is the oldest of the boys at 16 years old, Wise is a victim of molestation and suffers from severe learning disabilities, hearing issues and developmental difficulties. Under New York law, which at the time permitted youth aged 16 and above to be tried and sentenced as adults, Wise spends 12 years in an adult prison while the other boys serve in juvenile detention centers. The show’s brilliance manifests in its portrayal of Wise’s experiences. He cries out before being beaten up by other inmates twice his size and age while a guard turns his back: “No … I don’t want no problems. I said I don’t want no problems. You don’t have to hurt me.” 

In a particularly gripping scene after Wise transfers to solitary confinement, we witness his happiness when he feels air conditioning in his usually dark and humid cell for the first time — we understand his newfound burst of joy, and we all feel that gust of fresh air along with him. In another, we watch Wise beg his mother to visit him more often, only for her to remind him quietly that the facility he is housed in is almost 300 miles from their home in Harlem, summing to a twelve-hour drive there and back. By illustrating Wise’s vulnerability as a child in an adult prison and the horrid conditions he and his family endure, “When They See Us” drives home the point that this is not only a true story, but one that, given today’s onslaught of mass incarceration, is becoming more and more common.

Even when the boys — with the exception of Wise — are released, we see firsthand how difficult it is for them to restart their lives with criminal records. Santana returns to prison shortly after his release for an unrelated drug charge, highlighting the cycle of recidivism.

Finally, after over a decade, all five boys are fully exonerated in 2002, when convicted rapist Matias Reyes confesses to singlehandedly raping Meili. Reyes’ DNA matches the initial semen samples, but some people still believe that the boys helped him attack Meili. They must reconstruct their lives, reconcile with their lost youth, and move forward in a world where the sensationalized, racially charged coverage of the case makes their reputations almost unalterable. We learn that the criminal justice system leaves permanent scars on those ensnared in it.

“When They See Us” is essential viewing for every American, carefully crafted and coherent, such that we feel as though we share the boys’ struggles. It is complemented by stunning acting across the board and an excellent script, with an especially noteworthy performance by Jharrel Jerome (Korey Wise). The show is both difficult and extraordinarily important to watch. We see not only the boys’ hardship, but the everlasting injuries inflicted upon Meili as a result of the rape, provoking fury and disgust for the fact that she was not afforded justice for over a decade.

By humanizing the boys in their portrayal, the show’s main message is that that they were victims alongside Meili. It amplifies the voices of five men whose true stories were never brought to light — the show shows us their struggles while in prison and also the dreams and aspirations they had before, allowing us to view them as people with full-fledged identities outside the unquestionable tragedy in their lives. At its core, “When They See Us” is a call to action, meant to galvanize viewers to advocate for structural change in the system by which the Central Park Five were victimized.

“When They See Us” is available on Netflix.

Contact Sneha Revanur at sneharevanur ‘at’ gmail.com.

Sneha was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.

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