In the United States, we do not have a justice system — we have a legal system.
That system has been designed to follow the letter of the law, not the spirit of fairness. Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” serves as a powerful reminder of this fact. The Netflix miniseries depicts the tragic story of five teenagers — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise — who became known as the Central Park Five after being forced to confess to a rape they did not commit.
Unfortunately, the story of the Central Park Five was not exceptional. It fits a historical pattern of unjust arrests and wrongful convictions of black and Latino young men in the United States, one that even DuVernay’s series cannot fully address. We must understand this pattern to channel the newfound interest in the case into the necessary systemic reforms.
From the onset of their arrest and questioning in 1989 through trials, sentencing and eventual exoneration in 2002, the Central Park Five experienced despotic treatment by various state authorities. It was a case framed by the dynamics of race and class: The young men were, from the start, all presumed criminal in the eyes of the law.
Forced confessions were enough evidence to land four of the five in the juvenile system. Korey, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, landed in the adult system because, up until 2018, New York prosecuted 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. For more than a decade, these five youths navigated this torturous terrain as their families suffered through their absence, a detail that DuVernay powerfully captures.