The four-part Netflix drama “When They See Us,” created, co-written and directed by noted African American filmmaker Ava DuVernay, has again turned the spotlight on the unjust conviction of the “Central Park Five.”
Five teenagers, four black and one Hispanic, were found guilty of raping a white jogger in Central Park in 1990. They were exonerated 12 years later, after they had served prison sentences and after a serial rapist confessed to the crime.
The miniseries and the conversation around it have treated the Central Park Five story as a simple tale of the evil of white racism. Racial stereotyping was a factor in the injustice that was done. But it was far more complicated. What happened was also a result of media frenzy and heightened sensitivity toward sex crimes — including feminist outrage at violence against women.
When the jogger, a 28-year-old investment banker (who, years later, identified herself as Trisha Meili) was found unconscious, beaten and raped in Central Park in spring 1989, the news shook a city coping with rampant crime. The boys who were arrested — Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana — were to some extent casualties of a societal tendency to see young black males as potential criminals. But it is also true they were part of a loose group of about 30 East Harlem teens who were in Central Park that night attacking random bicyclists and joggers.
This doesn’t mean they attacked Meili. Indeed, circumstantial evidence indicates they were elsewhere in the park. The boys’ soon-retracted confessions, riddled with inconsistencies, are now almost universally seen as the result of police coercion and manipulation. There was no forensic evidence tying them to the act.
In 2001, Matias Reyes, a murderer and rapist serving a life sentence for other crimes, confessed to raping and beating Meili; his statement was confirmed by DNA and other crime scene evidence.
Why were the teens convicted, despite what should have been plenty of reasonable doubt? (Veteran journalist Joan Didion noted the weaknesses in the case back in 1991.) Mainly because media coverage and public emotion created an accusation-equals-guilt mindset.
Racial stereotypes played a role. But notably, the year before the Central Park rape, a white woman, Margaret Kelly Michaels, was convicted of molesting 20 children at a New Jersey day care center and sentenced to 47 years in prison in a case that also generated intense emotion. A later review found that the children were heavily pressured to “disclose” abuse and that the acts imputed to Michaels, whose conviction was overturned in 1993, were highly implausible.
In the Central Park case, the jogger became a symbol for female victims of male violence, while Linda Fairstein, then the head of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, and Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer were hailed as heroic feminist avengers. After Lederer won the first three convictions, a New York journalist gloated that the defendants “were nailed by a woman,” something that could have never “crossed their vicious minds.” The writer was not a fearmongering white reactionary but Bob Herbert, a respected, progressive black columnist for the Daily News (and later The New York Times) who wrote often on racial issues.
Today, the wheel has turned, and the now-retired Fairstein, who opposed vacating the five men’s convictions in 2002, has gone from hero to pariah, dropped by her book publisher and booted from several boards of directors. But the sex-crime panic and the presumed-guilty mentality are still with us. The Central Park Five story is a cautionary tale about that, too.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.