They were exonerated in 2002, after spending years in prisons and juvenile detention centers, when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist, confessed to the attack. Five years ago, the Central Park Five reached a landmark $41 million settlement with the city.
In 1989, as the case fueled sensationalist headlines about racial tensions in a crime-ridden city, Trump paid $85,000 to place a full-page ad in four local newspapers, including the New York Times. In large, underlined text, the prominent real estate developer called for New York to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
The ad did not directly mention the Central Park jogger case, as it was widely known at the time, but many saw Trump’s message as a call for the execution of teenagers who had not yet been tried in a court of law.
His ad is an undercurrent in the miniseries’ second episode, which follows the teens after their arrests, leading up to their closely watched trials. In one scene, Deloris (Niecy Nash), the mother of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), looks crestfallen as she catches a glimpse of a TV news report about Trump’s pricey ad buy on the TV screen in a bodega. The report includes a quote Trump delivered at a news conference in 1989: “You better believe that I hate the people who took this girl and raped her brutally.”
The ad played on fears about crime in the city — and the inherent racial politics of black and brown boys being accused of raping a white woman:
Many New York families — White, Black, Hispanic and Asian — have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the Park at dusk, the Saturday visit to the playground with their families, the bike ride at dawn, or just sitting on their stoops — given them up as hostages to a world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter.
Certain phrases in the ad allude to the Central Park case specifically. Trump’s reference to “roving bands of wild criminals” evokes “wilding,” a slang term that was prevalent in tabloid coverage of the case.
“Wilding” comes up in the first installment of “When They See Us,” as prosecutor Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) focuses on one teen’s claim that he and his friends had just been “wilding out” in the park. In her quest to get convictions based on little evidence, the playful phrase, which usually refers to boisterous fun, becomes something more sinister.
Footage of an interview Trump did in 1989 makes its way directly into the miniseries. The scene arrives after Sharone Salaam (Aunjanue Ellis), whose son, Yusef, had just made bail, faces a barrage of questions from news reporters — one of whom wants to know if Sharone has “any response to Donald Trump calling for the death penalty” for Yusef. A pastor helping the family dismisses Trump as a “real-estate hustler,” and a visibly shaken Sharone retreats to her apartment, where she commiserates over drinks with a friend.
Their attention is drawn to the television. “I think that sometimes a black may think that they don’t really have the advantage or this or that,” Trump is shown saying on the screen. “But in actuality, today, currently it’s a great — I’ve said on occasion even about myself, if I were starting off today I would love to be a well-educated black, because I really do believe they have an actual advantage today.”
An exasperated Sharone turns to her friend: “What is a black?” she asks, before concluding that “they need to keep that bigot off TV.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the friend says. “His 15 minutes almost up.”
Trump’s quote, from a wide-ranging September 1989 interview with NBC News, was preceded by his claim that “a well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market.”
In the miniseries, a devastated Sharone goes back to Trump’s ad. “They want to kill my son. That devil, that devil wants to kill my son,” she says. “You’re going to take an ad out about killing my son? They’re going to have to come for me first. Better yet, I’ll come for him.”
Trump’s name doesn’t come up again until the fourth and final episode, which ends with the Central Park Five learning of their exoneration. At an emotional celebration for the five men, Harlem activist Nomsa Brath (Adepero Oduye) laments that “the real criminal was free to rape and even kill, while the police and prosecutors and puppets like Donald Trump patted themselves on their fat backs.”
The Central Park case happened during a period of increased crime in New York City, and Trump wasn’t the only prominent resident to take a stance on the issue. The city’s rush to judgment was also highlighted in “The Central Park Five,” the 2012 documentary from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. The film features footage of news interviews with city leaders, including Mayor Ed Koch and governor Mario Cuomo, talking about the jogger case ahead of the teens’ 1990 trials.
“This is the ultimate shriek of alarm,” Cuomo says in the documentary. “This is the ultimate siren that none of us are safe.”
But Trump’s ad in particular became a go-to topic in media interviews of the time, which capped off an unprecedentedly high-profile decade for the businessman. Amid criticism that the ad could provoke violence, Trump told Larry King he didn’t “see anything inciteful” about it.
“I am strongly in favor of the death penalty,” Trump said, in a clip that wasn’t used in the miniseries. “I am also in favor of bringing back police forces that can do something instead of turning their back because every quality lawyer that represents people that are trouble said the first thing they do is start shouting police brutality, etc.”
Trump’s remarks about the case have received renewed attention in recent years as he has faced criticism for his rhetoric as president.
“They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty,” he told CNN in 2016, a month before he was elected president, about the case. “The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Last year, after Trump asserted that innocent men were being falsely accused of sexual misconduct in the Me Too era, a reporter invoked the Central Park Five in a question about whether the president believed everyone should be afforded the right to due process. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did not respond to direct questions about whether Trump still believed the Central Park Five were guilty.
Several of the prosecutors in the case, including Fairstein and co-prosecutor Tim Clements, portrayed in the miniseries by Alex Breaux, have also publicly said in recent years that they believe the teens’ convictions were fair.
On May 1, DuVernay — who previously explored Trump’s denouncing of the Central Park Five in her Oscar-nominated documentary “13th” — tweeted about the “hateful ad” Trump purchased three decades ago.
Telling the story in 2019 is a reminder of “how far we’ve not come,” DuVernay recently told Vanity Fair. “And for a key player in it to be the leader of the free world makes it all pretty relevant and pretty important to take stock 30 years later.”