Ava DuVernay and The Central Park 5 on Re-Writing Their Story 30 Years Later
Watching When They See Us together as a group was like "reliving the pain and reliving the journey," Raymond Santana says.
Before When They See Us debuted on Netflix May 31, Executive Producer Ava DuVernay screened the four-episode series for the real-life Central Park Five — Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise — the five black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of brutally attacking and raping 28-year-old female jogger Trisha Meili in New York City’s Central Park in 1989, when they were between the ages of 14 and 16.
“I told the guys I would give them my whole heart doing this, and I did,” DuVernay said during the Producers Guild of America Produced By conference at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. “I thought, ‘Please let them feel like this was right. Like their stories were told. Like they were depicted in the right way.’”
The men watched all four episodes back-to-back. “It was a marathon,” she said, adding that it took five hours and 15 minutes all-in. “I could see the light from the screen on their faces ... They went through their whole journey again. They saw themselves as boys again.”
At the time they were arrested, Salaam, Richardson, McCray, Santana and Wise were just kids. After a series of reported attacks on the night of April 19, 1989, including that of Meili, they were arrested, and said they were held in custody for 24-36 hours without food or water, interrogated by police, and coerced into issuing false confessions for Meili’s attack.
All five of the teens were convicted the following year for a crime they did not commit, and served between five and 12 years in prison. In 2002 after a chance encounter with Wise in prison, convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed that he had assaulted Meili in 1989 when he was 17 years old, and had acted alone. DNA evidence confirmed the confession, and the Central Park Five were exonerated on December 19, 2002.
In 2003, the five men sued New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. That case was settled in 2014 — 11 years later — for $41 million, $1 million each, for each year they served in prison. Revisiting the events of that night in 1989, and how their lives played out as a result of it, was an emotional experience for the five as well as DuVernay.
“Imagine seeing yourself at the moment your whole life changed,” she said of the first time she screened the film for them. “They cried, they wept, they held onto each other, they wailed. They got up, they walked around, they moved chairs … it was a physical thing. They touched each other, they looked at each other, they cried through the whole thing. I thought I could never see that many tears come out of a human being for five hours ...and [I was crying] too.”
Raymond Santana told InStyle that when they watched the series together it was like “reliving the pain and reliving the journey.” It was a difficult experience, but one he felt was needed. “Now, we know that it's necessary. That was the difference,” he continued, adding that they didn’t know exactly how each others’ lives had unfolded, until they watched the series together.
“There were things that the fellas didn't know about me that I went through that you see in episode three,” he continued. “Nobody knew about all the stuff that Korey went through in episode four. We never really had those conversations.” In episode three of When They See Us, Santana’s struggles post-prison release are detailed, including his struggle to find a job because of his criminal record (due to the case), and his return to prison. Episode four details the unimaginable constant abuse Wise faced in prison, including the infamous Rikers Island, from the time he went in at 16 until his release in 2002.
“Here we were exonerated since 2002, thinking that we have a handle on life and we're just trying to move forward, and then we see the series and it makes us take a step back,” Santana continued. “It makes us realize that we don't fully have a handle [on all that we’ve been through], and we have to reevaluate. That process has also made us stronger, and it made us closer.”
DuVernay said she felt “true glory” seeing the men’s reaction to When They See Us. “For a filmmaker there was no better moment than that — we worked so vestedly hard on this piece, and their reaction told us we got it right.”
Ahead, we catch up with the real-life Central Park Five, and see where other key players in their devastating case are now, 30 years later.
Raymond Santana (Played by Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares)
When They See Us started with Raymond Santana. Now living in Georgia with his daughter, Santana tweeted DuVernay in 2014 after seeing Selma, asking if she would consider making her next project about the Central Park 5.
“I saw her work, I was intrigued by her work,” Santana told InStyle. “I knew this was the person that I wanted to tell our story because her work told me that she wasn't going to compromise who she was, she was going to stay true to herself, and she was going to stay true to our story. Especially once she did the research and she found out for herself.”
“When she retweeted it, I started to gain some hope,” he continued. “Like, okay, I have a shot. Then she slid into my DMs,” Santana said with a laugh. “She said, ‘Hey nobody has the rights to your story. I'll be in New York in a month or so, can we have dinner?’ I said, that's it, right there. That's my moment that I have to seize. If I want this woman to do this story, this is it right here.”
Santana was only 14 years old when he was arrested for the attack and rape of Meili. He was tried as a juvenile and spent five years in prison, serving his full sentence before being exonerated. According to The New York Times, he received $7.125 million of the settlement.
“I mean, it's still a struggle,” Santana told InStyle. “People think that everything is cool, because you get a settlement. People think everything is supposed to be great after that. Yeah, the settlement helps take care of my family and things like that, but for me it's still a struggle every day.”
Beyond financial difficulties he faced pre-settlement, Santana says trying to rewrite the narrative around his case has followed him. “We're constantly fighting against a system that really doesn't want to admit that they're wrong.”
As for how he copes now, Santana said, “I try to stay busy. There's the gym, I was doing a lot of speaking engagements, which also helped me a lot. That became part of the healing process, to tell my story. I work on my company.”
That is Park Madison NYC, a clothing company that Santana started in 2015 with part of the money he received. “I wanted to regain something that I lost, and that was the passion for my art. ... When I was 14 years old, I loved to sketch. I have several sketch books, I had several pads. Fashion was in there somewhere for me. Going to prison, I lost that drive.”
One of the most popular items in the collection is a shirt that has all five of the men’s names on it, with a portion of the proceeds going to The Innocence Project, which helps exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing. The T-shirt has been selling out since When They See Us premiered.
As for how Santana feels about the backlash against the key players in the case — head of the Manhattan D.A.’s office sex crimes unit, Linda Fairstein, as well as lead prosecutor of the case, Elizabeth Lederer, and others, Santana said, “When you do a disservice to somebody, or you do an injustice to somebody, that karma does come back. You have to pay a price for the crimes that you committed ... if the public decides that you have to be held accountable, then you have to be held accountable.”
“These people have been running around for over 30 years free while we had to endure this nightmare,” he continued. “We had to fight against a system that won't let up, right? It has never given us any breaks. In this 30-year process, you can see the proof. We filed a civil suit, and it takes us 11 years to settle this case. We went to prison under the harshest sentences. We never received any work release, any furloughs, any time cuts, nothing. Everything that we have gotten all up to this point, we have earned it. We have fought for it.”
Kevin Richardson (Played by Asante Black and Justin Cunningham)
Kevin Richardson was only 14 when he was accused of attacking and sexually assaulting Meili. According to the Innocence Project, he was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, assault and robbery, and spent more than five years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Richardson currently lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters, and continues to fight for the rights of others who have been wrongfully accused through his work with The Innocence Project.
He received $7.125 million of the 2012 settlement, according to The New York Times.
Antron McCray (Played by Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo)
Antron McCray was just 15 years old when he was wrongfully convicted for the rape and assault of Meili. In 1990, his father, Bobby McCray, testified that he directed his son to confess to the crime, thinking that police would let Antron go free if he did so. Antron was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison and served six, according to the Innocence Project.
"I struggle with [my feelings toward my father],” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “Sometimes I love him. Most of the time, I hate him. I lost a lot, you know, for something I didn't do. He just flipped on me, and I just can't get past that. It's real hard. I did seven and a half years [including time spent detained during the trial] for something I didn't do, and I just can't get over it.”
McCray now lives in Georgia with his family. He received $7.125 million of the settlement in 2014, according to the Times. Prior to that, he had worked as a forklift operator, according to the Innocence Project.
Korey Wise (Played by Jharrel Jerome)
Wise, then a 16 year old with hearing issues and a learning disability, was not one of the original suspects police arrested. When his friend Yusef Salaam was brought in for questioning, Wise accompanied him as a sign of support. That proved to be a big mistake when police pulled him into the interrogation room as well.
At 16, Korey was the oldest of the boys, and because of his age, he was legally allowed to be questioned by detectives without the supervision of a guardian. He was coerced into giving a written and videotaped confession of Meili’s assault and rape, and unlike the other teens who were sentenced to a youth correctional facility, he was sentenced to five to 15 years in an adult prison. He served the most time — 12 years in prison.
Wise was initially sent to Rikers Island, and subjected to horrifying abuse and violence. He spent long periods of incarceration in solitary confinement. “One of the things that really struck me was when Korey said to me, ‘There is no Central Park Five,” DuVernay told Town and Country. “It was four plus one. And no one has told that story.”
DuVernay tweeted that the abuse Wise suffered that was depicted in When They See Us was only “about 70 percent” of what he actually endured. “That’s why we call him the King,” she
continued. “He is a walking miracle.”
Wise, now 46, received the largest amount of the settlement, $12.2 million according to iNews. “You can forgive, but you won’t forget,” Wise said in an interview for the 2012 documentary, The Central Park Five. “You won’t forget what you lost … No money could bring the life that was missing or the time that was taken away.”
He currently lives and works in NYC, is a criminal justice reform advocate, and public speaker, according to iNews. He also donated $190,000 to the University of Colorado chapter of the Innocence Project, which led to the renaming of the chapter to the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law.
Dr. Yusef Salaam (Played by Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk)
Salaam was only 15 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of rape and assault. He was tried as a juvenile and sentenced to five to 10 years in a youth correctional facility. Salaam was released after serving nearly seven years. Out of all of the boys, Salaam never submitted a written or videotaped confession. He was convicted nevertheless.
Today, Salaam lives in Georgia with his wife and 10 children. He is an activist, poet, and inspirational public speaker, who has traveled the world sharing his story with others, and delivering lectures about criminal justice reform, the effects of incarceration, and the disenfranchisement of economically disadvantaged people.
Salaam received a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama in 2016, and an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Anointed by God ministries Alliance and Seminary in 2014.
Linda Fairstein (Played by Felicity Huffman)
The former Manhattan prosecutor was the head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office at the time of the case was a key player in the alleged coercion of confessions from the Central Park Five. She retired as head of the sex crimes unit in 2002, the same year the men were exonerated.
Following her retirement, she began a career as a writer, penning mystery novels, mostly about fictional Manhattan Assistant District Attorney for the Sex Crimes Unit, Alexandra Cooper. To date, Fairstein has written 23 books, became a New York Times bestseller, and has served as a legal correspondent for Good Morning America, Today, and many other outlets.
Not long after When They See Us debuted, social media users slammed Fairstein, calling for boycotts of her books, for booksellers to remove her novels from shelves, and more. Students at Vassar College also started an online petition to remove her from the board of trustees. It gained over 13,000 signatures in two days according to NBC News.
In the last couple of weeks, Fairstein has gone on to resign from the board and was also dropped by her publisher, Dutton Books. According to Deadline, her Hollywood literary agency ICM Partners, has also “shown her the door.” Fairstein also stepped down from the board of trustees of Safe Horizon, an organization that aids victims of domestic abuse in New York City.
She recently wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling When They See Us an “outright fabrication.”
During the Producers’ Guild of America’s Produced by Panel, When They See Us producer Jane Rosenthal said Fairstein refused to consult on When They See Us. “She was concerned that we were talking to the five men,” Rosenthal said. “So, her point of view was clearly that she didn’t want us talking to the five men if we were talking to her.”
Elizabeth Lederer (Played by Vera Farmiga)
Elizabeth Lederer was the Manhattan assistant district attorney who led the prosecution on the Central Park Five case. Following the case, Lederer continued to work for the DA’s office in Manhattan (this is her 40th year doing so).
Lederer also served as a part-time lecturer at Columbia Law School … until last week. Following calls for the law school to dismiss her after When They See Us debuted, Lederer told Columbia Wednesday she would not seek reappointment in her position, according to the Washington Post.
“I’ve enjoyed my years teaching at CLS, and the opportunity it has given me to interact with the many fine students who elected to take my classes,” she said in a statement. “However, given the nature of the recent publicity generated by the Netflix portrayal of the Central Park case, it is best for me not to renew my teaching application.”
NYPD Detective Michael Sheehan (Played by William Sadler)
Michael Sheehan was an NYPD detective who was a key investigator in the Central Park Five case, and helped secure the teens’ confessions. According to The Grio, Sheehan continued to claim that the investigation was handled properly and that the men were guilty even after Reyes’ confession led to their exoneration in 2002.
"It's really disheartening and disgraceful," Sheehan said of the exonerations at the time, according to ABC News. "Anyone who is out there saying that they're innocent and believing them, shame on them.”
Vulture reports that following the convictions of the Central Park Five, Sheehan retired from the police force in 1993 and became a crime correspondent for Fox 5 News in New York for the next 16 years.
In 2009, he was arrested on charges of reckless endangerment and operating a vehicle while intoxicated after he crashed his car into a mounted police horse. He claimed the horse ran into him. A month later, Fox 5 let him go.
He passed away June 7, 2019 — one week after the series was released — at the age of 71 following a long battle with cancer.
Trisha Meili (Played by Alexandra Templer)
Meili now lives with her husband in Connecticut, and works with survivors of sexual assault at Mount Sinai Hospital and Gaylord Hospital, according to Refinery 29. After stepping away from the spotlight for 13 years, she resurfaced a year after the exonerations and published a memoir, I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility in 2003.
“I thought this would be a good time to say, 'Hey, look. It’s been 20 years, and life doesn’t end after brain injury, after sexual assault or whatever our challenges are,'” Meili told The New York Times at the time.
Meili still has no memory of the night of her attack, but is skeptical of Reyes’s confession that he acted alone. In 2003 after Reyes came forward, she told Katie Couric in an interview, “If [Reyes] is telling the truth, it’s a horrible thing if innocent people are sent to prison, and it only adds to the tragedy of that evening.”