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Courts can get it wrong. We sometimes sentence innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. The four-part Netflix drama When They See Us revisits the real-life case of the “Central Park Five” but oversimplifies the story as a tale of racism and bad police work.
Netflix has rated the series MA (for “mature audiences”): Viewers should be aware of coarse language throughout and some blasphemy, along with scenes of violence and an unnecessary sex scene.
In late 1980s New York City, the public is outraged when a jogger is found raped, beaten, and left for dead in Central Park. The night of the attack, dozens of young black and Hispanic men had roamed the park in a spree of violence, harassing citizens and causing mayhem and injury. Eager for a conviction, the police arrest and charge five young men for the rape.
Those five may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or may have been involved in some of the other crimes of that night. In director Ava DuVernay’s version of events, the Central Park Five are on the periphery of the violence in the park and are innocent of the rape charges. Her portrayal of the police and prosecutors is unsympathetic: One of the boys is brutally beaten with an officer’s helmet, and the prosecutors use the injury on his face as evidence that he was one of the rapists. DuVernay suggests officers coerced confessions from the boys with the promise they would be allowed to go home if they simply told the cops what they wanted to hear.
Real-life law enforcement personnel who were present at the arrests and interrogations vehemently dispute the show’s version of events. Retired NYPD Officer Eric Reynolds, in an interview with the U.K.’s Daily Mail, called the show “total nonsense.” Reynolds—who is black—arrested several of the youths, and pictures from the time show no obvious injuries to the suspect who supposedly had been beaten so badly. Reynolds’ recollections of the crimes and subsequent investigation directly contradict important plot points in the miniseries: The boys offered confessions of their roles in crimes at the park voluntarily or implicated one another, he said. Reynolds also scoffs at the drama’s opening scenes in Central Park, which downplay the violence of some of the attacks: “It was like watching a musical. I was flabbergasted. That absolutely was not what occurred.”
A prosecutor in the case, Linda Fairstein, has also objected to the show, which portrays her as a vicious racist uninterested in justice. In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Fairstein, now a successful author of crime fiction, called the series “an outright fabrication” and noted there was other evidence implicating the Central Park Five besides their confessions. Despite her defense, Fairstein’s publisher and various boards have dropped her.
When They See Us goes on to show the terrible consequences to the accused and their families. The boys are from broken or fragile homes, and the pressures and publicity of the trial and sentences are hard for them and their loved ones to bear. The oldest of the boys (at 16) is sentenced as an adult and purportedly suffers beatings and mistreatment during his 13 years in prison. Once the four underage boys have served their sentences, they suffer the consequences of being ex-convicts. It’s hard to get a job or reenter society when your crimes are so well known.
Some time later, a serial rapist already in prison claims that he alone was responsible for the sexual assault in Central Park. Investigators find that his DNA matches samples collected from the victim’s clothing. As a result, the five men are exonerated, and New York City settles with them for $41 million in damages.
Millions have already watched this Netflix series, and many will use this embroidered version of the story as evidence of racism and injustice being the norm in law enforcement. The real facts of the case are more complicated, and deserve a thorough, fact-based retelling.