In the United States, we do not have a justice system — we have a legal system.
That system has been designed to follow the letter of the law, not the spirit of fairness. Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” serves as a powerful reminder of this fact. The Netflix miniseries depicts the tragic story of five teenagers — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise — who became known as the Central Park Five after being forced to confess to a rape they did not commit.
Unfortunately, the story of the Central Park Five was not exceptional. It fits a historical pattern of unjust arrests and wrongful convictions of black and Latino young men in the United States, one that even DuVernay's series cannot fully address. We must understand this pattern to channel the newfound interest in the case into the necessary systemic reforms.
From the onset of their arrest and questioning in 1989 through trials, sentencing and eventual exoneration in 2002, the Central Park Five experienced despotic treatment by various state authorities. It was a case framed by the dynamics of race and class: The young men were, from the start, all presumed criminal in the eyes of the law.
Forced confessions were enough evidence to land four of the five in the juvenile system. Korey, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, landed in the adult system because, up until 2018, New York prosecuted 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. For more than a decade, these five youths navigated this torturous terrain as their families suffered through their absence, a detail that DuVernay powerfully captures.
After an exhaustive revisiting of the evidence in 2002, which was expedited when Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to the 1989 crime, the charges against the five were dropped. Korey joined the four other young men who had already been released — all were exonerated. In 2014, the city paid them $41 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit.
DuVernay's popular retelling of the story, which New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer, who covered the case, referred to as "fictionalized, lightly but not trivially," has reinserted the Central Park Five into this generation's popular memory.
But what the film and the discussions it has sparked have missed is just how common their experience was at the time. It fit into a broader pattern that included the Scottsboro Boys from the 1930s, the Trenton Six from the 1940s and the Harlem Six from the 1960s — all cases of racial injustice involving groups of minority youths charged or convicted of violent crimes against white victims, but eventually overturned.
The parallels between the Central Park Five and the 1964 case of the Harlem Six are especially striking. Both cases earned national headlines and international audiences. The Harlem Six — teenagers William Craig, Wallace Baker, Walter Thomas, Ronald Felder, Daniel Hamm and Robert Rice from upper Manhattan — faced the death penalty, and subsequently life in prison, for the killing of a white woman in Harlem, despite scarce physical evidence.
How did this happen?
The crime occurred at a time in which the New York City Police Department was reaffirming its presence as "front-line soldiers" in the impending "War on Crime" and beginning to implement aggressive police tactics to combat the growing concerns about rising crime. In January 1964, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller introduced two new anti-crime laws: "stop-and-frisk," which allowed police to stop and pat down civilians without probable cause, and "no-knock" warrants, which allowed police to enter residences without announcing themselves. These laws were part of a campaign "to reestablish law and order." According to the governor, total police discretion was vital for police officers to protect the public against serious crimes. These anti-crime bills drew sharp protests from black New Yorkers and civil rights groups rightly concerned about disproportionate enforcement.
The new laws would ensnare countless victims, mostly black and Latino youths, who entered the legal system for the first time. This included the Harlem Six, whose arrests and ensuing trials were laden with racial hysteria — including media-fueled rumors of an anti-white hate gang roaming Harlem — until a key prosecution witness confessed to his probation officer that his testimony was a lie.
On April 4, 1973, almost nine years to the day of their initial arrest, four of the six — Craig, Baker, Thomas and Felder — were freed. Unlike the Central Park Five, they had pleaded guilty to a lesser manslaughter charge, but maintained their innocence throughout.
"We've said all along we are not guilty and what we feel the world should know is that we are still not guilty," Craig told reporters after their release. The certainty of freedom, even at the price of a criminal record, was a better option than facing the uncertainty of another trial. Hamm was released one year later. But Rice would not be paroled and released until 1991, 27 years after the initial arrest.
Why are such cases a common feature of our legal system? A major driver is the racial hysteria and the stigma of criminality attached to black and Latino youths — especially in cases of violent crime against white women. “Whenever a crescendo of racist fear and guilt begins to build in the white community,” Truman Nelson wrote in “The Torture of Mothers,” the outcome is “a frenzied hue and cry, brutal arrests and hysterical trial [of] multiple black defendants accused of a crime so monstrous that the whole apparatus of the state backed by a totally terrorized and convinced public opinion can be brought into a direct onslaught against them.”
This was true for the Harlem Six. And it was also true for the Central Park Five.
Infamously, the rush to judgment against the five included a full-page ad in New York newspapers from then-real estate developer, and now president, Donald Trump, screaming to "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK OUR POLICE!" The ad fanned the hysteria and made the frenzy and rush to judgment worse. And DuVernay captures this. Trump called for the execution of the innocent minors and, according to Jelani Cobb, has "never admitted that he was wrong about the Central Park attack."
Such frenzy is a key element of these cases. Politicians and the media often contribute to the climate in which police, prosecutors and judges act. This is one shortcoming of DuVernay's miniseries. With hardly any mention of past officials such as New York Mayor Ed Koch and David Dinkins, the city's first African American mayor, nor New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, DuVernay missed an opportunity to highlight the role of Democratic politicians in reinforcing racist hysteria in one of the most liberal cities in America.
Instead of calming the waters, these politicians, with their rhetoric and calls for tough-on-crime policies, helped create a culture in which such travesties of judgment were possible. In the wake of the 1990 conviction of the Central Park Five, Dinkins declared that "New York City [was] at war with its criminals." In the New York Times, he called for "more cops in the trenches to battle street crime" while admitting that "merely more officers would not eliminate group violence, the kind that introduced us to Bernhard Goetz, the Central Park jogger, Yusuf Hawkins and Brian Watkins."
Sadly, these kinds of cases continue to happen today. False accusations against black and Latino defendants plague the legal system. According to the Innocence Project, 88 percent of DNA exonerees who were arrested as minors are black, and the majority were tried as adults; 62 percent of DNA exonerees overall are black; and 33 percent of the false confessors were 18 or younger at the time of arrest.
"When They See Us" sheds new light on this old tale and aims to create change. DuVernay's miniseries joins the decades-long efforts by activists to humanize the Central Park Five beyond the numeric moniker. It also, perhaps most notably, has inspired the next generation of social justice activists committed to working to overturn wrongful convictions and to reigniting mainstream discussions about criminal injustices in America's legal system, in the hope of achieving an overhaul of the system.
Carl Suddler is assistant professor of history at Emory University and author of “Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York.”