There were more than 30 teenagers in New York’s Central Park on the night Trisha Meili was raped. Some in the group brutalized whoever crossed their paths, choosing at random people to rob and to attack. They used stones, metal pipes, their fists and their feet. They left people bruised, bloody or unconscious.
The prosecution involved at least eight victims and 12 arrests. Yet its retelling — in headlines and in film — has taken what happened on April 19, 1989, and boiled it down to the Central Park Five and the Central Park jogger.
“When They See Us,” a series based on the story of the Central Park Five, written and produced by Ava DuVernay, has been Netflix’s most-watched program since its May 31 release, viewed by more than 23 million accounts worldwide at the time of publication. The four-part drama focuses on the mistreatment of five juveniles by the justice system.
The show’s success highlights the genre’s power to shape public perception. But if the series is a viewer’s first or only exposure to the Central Park case, parts of what happened that night are missing.
Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray, the men widely known as the Central Park Five, were prosecuted for what Georgetown Law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler called “the ultimate crime in the American imagery:” a black man sexually assaulting a white woman.
They suffered the consequences of their convictions for years before newly discovered evidence led prosecutors to vacate their convictions; in 2002, Matias Reyes confessed to, and took sole responsibility for, the rape of Meili. The unknown DNA profile, discussed by prosecution at trial, was a match to Reyes.
The Central Park Five story is every black man’s nightmare, Butler told The Washington Post. “[DuVernay] takes the story to a genre outside of abject racism porn and makes it empathetic with human beings who you can relate to.”
There’s an unspoken tension between telling a story artfully and accurately. “When They See Us” stands out as a compelling work of true-crime entertainment. It also takes liberties with facts from the night in Central Park and the prosecution that followed.
This article is based on months of trial and grand jury testimony, sworn statements from prosecutors, police officers and witnesses present that day, court rulings and video statements, which can be accessed in the links below.
Twelve teens were arrested, not just the Central Park Five
The criminal investigation that began on April 19 led to the arrest of 12 teenagers.
Within 30 minutes of the assaults, several boys were stopped in the park and taken into custody, including Richardson and Santana. Between April 20 and 21, the team of detectives that questioned the Central Park Five also took video statements from Steven Lopez, Clarence Thomas, Lamont McCall, Jomo Smith and Michael Briscoe. Although these individuals said they were in the park with the Central Park Five and detailed other attacks, none of them confessed to sexually assaulting Meili.
In addition to the Central Park Five, Lopez, Briscoe, Thomas, McCall, Antonio Montalvo, Orlando Escobar and Jermaine Robinson were arrested.
There were several assaults, not just the rape on which history has focused
Just after 9 p.m. on April 19, more than 30 teenagers met at Central Park. The plan, according to statements later given to police by Briscoe and Lopez, was to beat up and rob passersby. It didn’t matter who they were. According to the trial testimony and recorded statement that night, in less than an hour, there were unprovoked attacks on eight people.
Michael Vigna, a competitive cyclist out on a training ride, was the first victim. At trial, the 31-year-old described the “rambunctious” group “spread across the roadway” as he approached.
“One of the youths stuck his arm out in the direction of my face, and just barely missed my head,” he said. “I could, in fact, hear the sound of his fist, the force of his blow just nearly nicking my side of my head.”
Vigna testified he sped down the asphalt path, away from the boys, who quickly found their next victim: 50-year-old Antonio Diaz, whom some of the boys referred to as “the bum” or “the homeless man” in statements to police. Diaz was crossing through the park with a beer, chicken, rice and beans in hand.
“They picked me up by my neck and then by my feet,” he told jurors during the trial for Salaam, Santana and McCray. He said the attackers threw him to the ground and “kept kicking at me and hitting me with their fists.” In their statements, Wise, Richardson, Salaam, McCray and Lopez admitted to attacking Diaz and dragging his body off to the side.
Lopez and McCray told investigators that someone grabbed Diaz’s beer and poured it on him. McCray also said a kid named Tony stole Diaz’s food. Four others, according to a motion filed by the district attorney’s office, accused Montolvo, one of the teens arrested and charged, of eating Diaz’s food. Montolvo similarly told police that the group tried to jump a solo biker and then encountered the “bum.” “Everybody,” he said, began kicking him. Montolvo said he ate Diaz’s food while the others continued to beat Diaz.
Jerry Malone and Patricia Dean were riding a tandem bicycle through the park when they encountered the group. Like Vigna described, the teens spread across the roadway, blocking their path. Dean recalled they pulled up dark hoods, crouched down and made “sort of grunting” noises.
“At that point I was terrified,” she testified. As the couple pedaled into and through the group, Dean said three men on her right side began to push and pull her legs. On her left, she said, another was grabbing at her thigh and trying to lift it up. “They almost ripped me off the bike.”
When speaking to police, McCray, Salaam, Richardson, Wise and Lopez mentioned there were tandem bikers they were unable to catch.
“When They See Us” briefly portrays Dean and one of the assault victims, John Loughlin. There is no mention of the other four people around the park reservoir who were either followed, beaten or robbed.
Four male joggers were chased, robbed or knocked unconscious
The next two victims, joggers David Lewis and David Good, testified that they were chased and pelted with sticks and stones; Lewis remembered “two kids crouched down in a football stance” and about five others approaching him from behind. Both men escaped relatively unscathed.
The last two victims were not as fortunate.
Robert Garner, a 30-year-old research analyst, said he encountered 15 to 20 young men during his run. He said they were yelling and shouting. They surrounded him, forced him off the jogging track and began to punch him. Garner, knocked to the ground, recalled that one “had a grin on his face” while demanding his money. When he explained that he had nothing on him, “another one of the kids said, ‘Get out of here.’ ”
In his statement, Richardson mentioned that Santana had chased a man off the road. When the jogger said he had no money, Santana told him to get away and run, Richardson said.
At trial, the final victim, Loughlin, described approaching the group: “It looked like a fight, there was a center of attention. There seemed to be someone on the ground.”
Loughlin worked as a schoolteacher and had worn an Army-type jacket. (Several of the boys mentioned the jacket in their statements because it led them to believe the third male jogger was a police officer.) Moments after slowing his pace, Loughlin heard someone cry out, “Let’s break it up,” he testified at trial.
Another young man, standing closer to Loughlin, asked what he was looking at and called him “some kind of vigilante.” Soon, Loughlin testified, the other boys began howling, “Here’s one of those vigilantes.”
Loughlin recalled on the stand: “I don’t remember what happened next. My next memory was lying face down on the ground and being hit very hard with a heavy object in the head.”
Several boys, including Lopez and Briscoe, detailed Loughlin’s assault.
He was struck in the head and legs with a metal pipe and was holding himself, trying to protect his head. According to trial transcripts, he was kicked, robbed and knocked unconscious, then left with large black eyes and bleeding badly from his forehead.
At Richardson and Wise’s sentencing, the judge noted that a police officer described Loughlin as “looking like he was ‘dunked in a bucket of blood.‘ ” Even Richardson described Loughlin’s forehead as “busted and that blood was coming out."
The group dispersed by 10 p.m. The female Central Park jogger would not be discovered for several hours, and she would awake from a coma two weeks later, on May 2.
Ten teens were prosecuted. All of them served jail time.
The Central Park Five, Lopez and Briscoe were indicted as co-defendants. The charges against Lopez and Briscoe stemmed, in large part, from the statements Richardson, Santana and Wise made to police, according to a motion signed by Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ryan in 2002.
Lopez pleaded guilty to robbing Loughlin, and Briscoe pleaded guilty to assaulting Lewis, leaving the Central Park Five to face trial without them.
Lopez was sentenced to 1½ to 4½ years in prison, and Briscoe received a sentence of one year. Neither Lopez nor Briscoe’s convictions were vacated.
Charges were never filed against McCall, and the case against Thomas was dropped.
In total, 10 teens were prosecuted, including Salaam, Santana, McCray, Richardson and Wise. All of them were charged as adults, according to the district attorney’s office, and all were incarcerated.
Montalvo, named by McCray and charged in the assault of Diaz, pleaded guilty to robbery in the second degree. He was sentenced to one year.
Escobar was prosecuted for Loughlin’s assault. He pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree robbery and was sentenced to six months and a period of probation.
Robinson, who was named by Santana, Salaam, Richardson and McCray as the primary actor in Loughlin’s assault, was charged for his involvement in the robbery and assaults on Loughlin and Lewis. Loughlin also identified him in a lineup, according to the district attorney’s 2002 motion. Robinson pleaded to the first-degree robbery and assault of Loughlin and served one year.
The Central Park Five’s case was severed for trial.
Salaam, Santana and McCray were tried jointly. After eight weeks of testimony, the jury deliberated for 10 days before convicting all three on the first-degree assault and first-degree rape of Meili, three charges of assault and the first-degree robbery of Loughlin, the second-degree assault of Lewis and first-degree riot. All three were acquitted of the attempted murder and first-degree sodomy of Meili.
Richardson and Wise’s trial began two months after the others’ verdict. The jury deliberated for 11 days before convicting Richardson on all 13 counts. Wise was convicted on the first-degree assault and first-degree sexual abuse of Meili and of first-degree riot. He was acquitted of all remaining charges.
By the time the district attorney’s office vacated the Central Park Five’s convictions, four of the men — Richardson, McCray, Salaam and Santana — each served about seven years in prison. Wise — who, at 16, was tried as an adult — spent 13 years in prison.
The series features ‘some inaccuracies’ and moments of ‘artistic license’
DuVernay did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment, but documentarian Sarah Burns, who spent more than a decade researching the Central Park prosecution for a 2012 documentary, spoke with AM New York this month about moments in which she saw DuVernay take “artistic license.” These included private conversations between members of law enforcement that, if true, would be unethical.
“For example, when [Assistant District Attorneys Linda Fairstein and Lederer] are discussing the case, we don’t know what was really said there,” Burns said. “The series portrays Elizabeth Lederer as having real doubts about the evidence. She has never commented publicly about this, whereas Linda has been out there defending the guilty verdicts and the police.”
Burns said, “There are little points where things diverge from the timeline, but I understand you take some artistic license when telling a story.”
The series also had Lederer hiding exculpatory DNA evidence from the defense, despite transcripts to the contrary.
At both trials, Richardson and Wise’s and Salaam, Santana and McCray’s, Lederer told the jury in her opening statements that the vaginal and rectal samples were inconclusive and that the “semen stain found on one of the female jogger’s socks returned a result that did not match these defendants.”
In another episode, “When They See Us” placed Fairstein and Lederer at the police precinct, where they’re depicted directing the investigation, hours before they were informed of an assault in the park, according to court documents and hearing transcripts.
The Post was unable to reach any of the Central Park Five but when asked about “When They See Us,” Wise’s attorney, Colin Moore, said, “It’s a powerful series, there’s no doubt about it, but there were some inaccuracies.”
Most saliently, he said, was that the series muddled the verdicts and made it seem as if everyone was convicted of all the charges. Wise was convicted of only three counts. He was acquitted of the remaining 10 charges, including the rape and attempted murder of Meili.
“This was more than just a case. It’s the story of a black community that has been besieged by the system,” Moore said. “I wept for half an hour after [Wise] was found not guilty on most counts.”
The Central Park Five prosecution, set in the 1980s during the height of Manhattan’s lawlessness, underscores the inequity of the criminal legal process. Even 30 years later, history continues to focus on certain elements of the case: how “the Five” were dehumanized and seen as likely criminals, not as teenage witnesses; that they became scapegoats and victims of a city’s hostility and racial stereotyping; and as the ultimate injustice perpetrated against marginalized youths.
The story inflames emotions now as it did then, highlighting the system’s failures through five juveniles who confessed to and were found guilty of a brutal rape that DNA linked to another person who later confessed. And, despite the vacated convictions, a prosecutor, the police and even the president still stand by the initial result.
What does ‘based on a true story’ mean?
Several years ago, Information is Beautiful tested the accuracy of major motion pictures that were “based on a true story.” Breaking them down scene by scene, the data determined that most historical films are unreliable, sometimes fallacious. (The study had DuVernay’s “Selma” aligning perfectly with historical records; other critics have been less validating, calling aspects of the film “artless falsehoods.”)
Data points are now necessary to determine whether “based on a true story” means “as it happened,” “true in spirit,” “false with reasonable dramatic license,” “outrageous dramatic license” or “unverifiable."
It prompts the question: What responsibility, if any, does the artist have to the truth? Opinions seem split.
"As an artist, [DuVernay’s] responsibility is to tell the story in a way that’s accessible and gripping. [The series] told it in a way that may not be 100 percent accurate but provided the essence of the truth,” Butler said.
Those who come out on the other side argue that not even DuVernay has offered the series as a factual piece of work.
“Everyone has a right to their opinions, but they do not have the right to their own facts,” Murray Richman, a New York-based attorney and past president of the state’s Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in the New York Law Journal.
“[‘When They See Us’] claimed to be more or less true with added facts for dramatic purpose,” he said. “When you add to the truth, you diminish it; once you have added to it, it is no longer the truth.”
Disputing minor details or mentioning omissions may seem hypercritical when viewing the series in its entirety. Yet they’re some of its most provocative and, correspondingly, memorable moments.
If the responsibility to differentiate between a fictional and factual account falls on the audience, it must consider that while what it’s viewing may be based on a true story, there is probably more to the story.
Perspective: The slippery moral calculus of Linda Fairstein