New Netflix Series 'When They See Us' Explores the Story of the Central Park Five

Their stories are the subject of Netflix’s new limited series “When They See Us,” with Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay at the helm.

Many people say time is the most important commodity. It’s the one thing you spend, but can never get back.

Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana had years of their lives shaved off — imprisoned for a crime they never committed.

Trisha Meili was the victim of a gruesome rape in New York's Central Park 30 years ago. In tabloids and newspapers, she came to be known as the “Central Park Jogger," while the five teens accused of attacking her — Wise, Salaam, McCray, Richardson and Santana  —  were dubbed the “Central Park Five.”

Their stories are the subject of Netflix’s new limited series “When They See Us,” with Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay at the helm. The dramatized series chronicles the events leading up to the wrongful conviction of the boys, their time in prison and their eventual exoneration.

One Night in Central Park

The entire nightmare began when Meili, who worked as an investment banker at Salomon Brothers, left work late on the night of April 19, 1989.

"I stayed until after 8 o'clock and then I went home,” Meili told ABC's "20/20" in a recent special. “I ran in the park probably four to five days a week. I loved the freedom of the park. It just gave me a sense of vitality."

Meili stopped at her Upper East Side apartment and then went for a run around 9 p.m.

During this time, many kids were off from school because of the Passover holiday. Wise, McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana did not all know each other. Since they lived in close proximity, though, they all wound up together as part of a group of more than 30 teenagers who went to the park around the same time that night.

Some of the teens in that large group harassed others in the park, attacking joggers and hurling rocks at bicyclists. Police received repeated calls about the disturbances through the evening until they were able to break up the group.

Early the next morning, however, two men found Meili’s body naked, gagged, tied up and covered in mud. She had been nearly beaten to death, having lost 75-80% of her blood. Her left eye was beaten out of its socket and she had suffered brain damage. She had been raped. Doctors didn't think she would recover.

The only way to identify her mangled body turned out to be by a gold ring she wore that was shaped like a bow. 

A 'Fixed' Fight

Police tied the brutal attack to the disturbances in the park the night before and began questioning teens who they knew had been at the park that night. Among them were Wise, McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana. They endured hours of interrogation, oftentimes without their parents or legal guardians present, which is not allowed if a suspect is under 16. At the time, Salaam and McCray were 15 years old, Richardson and Santana were 14. Wise was 16.

In videotaped confessions, four of the five admitted to being in the park and participating in the broader assaults, but at no point did they ever confess to raping Meili. They have since said those confessions were coerced, born of deprivation of food, water and sleep. Salaam was the only one who refused to give a taped confession.

The high-profile case caught the attention of then-real estate mogul Donald Trump, who famously took out a full-page ad that read, “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” The ad, which ran in the New York Daily News on May 1, 1989, called for the boys to be executed.

It added fuel to the fire of an already tense city, civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson told

"The thing about Trump is, not only did he advertise they should be killed before the trial, when they were set free, he still wanted to have them killed. That's merciless," Jackson said.

"He used it as a propaganda base to turn people against people. He incited hate, he incited fear,” he added.

During their trial in August 1990, Salaam, McCray and Santana were acquitted of attempted murder but convicted of convicted of rape, assault, robbery and riot in connection to the attacks on the others in the park. They were sentenced to five to 10 years in an juvenile detention facility

At a second trial in December 1990, Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, assault and robbery. He was sentenced to five to 10 years at a juvenile facility as well. 

Wise, the oldest of the five, was tried as an adult. He was convicted of sexual abuse and assault, and was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison.

Throughout the trials, the boys and their lawyers maintained police coerced them into giving false confessions, incriminating themselves and others.

Santana has since spoken about the interrogation process in an interview with "CBS Sunday Morning." "We're 14-, 15-, and 16 year-old kids. Never been in trouble with the law. Never had no police contact. These are seasoned veterans. This fight was fixed."


Behind prison walls, a chance encounter Wise had with another inmate, Matias Reyes, in 2002 would provide the key that would unlock the Central Park Five’s future.

"The resolution of this whole tragedy came from something I don't believe is happenstance. It's a coincidence that borders on miracle," DuVernay told CBS Sunday Morning.

Reyes was already serving a life sentence for other crimes. He was convicted of raping four other women and killing one of them.

He confessed to Meili's rape as well, providing details only the one who committed the vile act would know. DNA tests confirmed it and the Central Park Five were exonerated. On Dec.19, 2002, the men’s sentences were vacated.

They sued the city for $250 million, but it would take more than a decade for them to see a dime. It wasn't until New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made good on a campaign promise that they saw any money.

In 2014, they eventually settled with the city for $40 million: $7.1 million for Salaam, Richardson, McCray and Santana; $12.1 million for Wise, who served the most time — 13 years.

But the money was merely a consolation prize.

"No amount of money could've given us our time back," Salaam said.

Meili, the victim, ended up making a miraculous recovery. She said she has no recollection of the incident. She now is a motivational speaker and advocates for sexual assault survivors.

As for the Central Park Five, the men still spend their time trying to be seen as people, after so much of time was spent calling them the opposite.

"You want to live the American dream. But sometimes, just like the Central Park Five, we woke up to the American nightmare,"  Salaam said at the series’ red carpet premiere. "And I'm excited about being able to play a part in the change of calling it the criminal system of injustice, to being able to call it the criminal justice system once again."

"When They See Us" debuts on Netflix Friday.