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Ava DuVernay's Central Park Five series isn't just history — it's an indictment of the present

The series illuminates how a wrongful conviction happened three decades ago and why they're still happening now.
Image: When They See Us
Aunjanue Ellis and Ethan Herisse in Netflix's "When They See Us."Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix

Last month, after a pair of screenings of the director Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five series in New York — one audience overwhelmingly white and the other overwhelmingly black — a general reaction could be heard.

The series was good, but hard, audience members said as they filed out of the screenings. It was hard to watch.

But the horrific case dramatized in DuVernay’s series was not a 1,000-year flood event, belonging to the country’s past. Elements of what led to the Central Park Five wrongful convictions, experts say, are recurrent and ongoing features of American justice.

The series, released on Netflix on Friday, captures the human price of one of America’s most infamous criminal justice odysseys. In 1989, five boys, all black and Latino and 16 or younger, were falsely accused of a brutal rape in New York’s Central Park. The victim had no memory of the crime and nearly died. After extended interrogations that featured the denial of sleep, food and parents, as well as promises the boys could go home after confessing, four of the five made false confessions, implicating one another in the crime, on tape.

In the years that followed, the boys were tried and convicted in a city where police, reporters and prosecutors questioned their humanity, describing them in terms reserved for animals. The boys served seven to 14 years before the actual rapist — by then in prison for subsequent rapes and murder — confessed to the crime. DNA testing confirmed his story. The prosecutors decided to try the boys despite knowing during the trial that DNA evidence matched none of the boys, case records made public indicate.

A court overturned the by-then grown men’s convictions in 2002. After a multi-year battle that included intermittent commentary by Donald Trump and a 10-year blockade erected by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City paid the men a collective $41 million settlement. Thirty years after the crime, police and prosecutors directly involved in the case continue to insist they did nothing wrong and claim the men are guilty.

That’s a summary of events with deep human consequences captured in the series. It’s also a list of elements common to cases where someone has been wrongly convicted.

Black Americans make up 13 percent of the nation’s total population but 49 percent of the nearly 2,500 people exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations database. About 12 percent of the exonerated are Latino, 38 percent are white and 2 percent are Asian.

High-profile cases appear more likely to result in wrongful convictions, Steven Drizin, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, wrote in an email to NBC News.

Police and prosecutors face intense pressure to imprison someone for the crime. Both groups are often evaluated by arrest and conviction statistics, which grow fastest with a disregard for accuracy and a willingness to violate suspects’ rights, break rules or push plea bargains. Judges and juries are also not immune to social pressure. Then, there is the climate created by reporters with their own biases and motivations.

Many wrongful convictions happen in the wake of prosecutor or police misconduct, Drizin said.

That can include manipulated, withheld or manufactured evidence and false testimony. In 2018, official misconduct played a role in at least 107 of the 151 exonerations documented by the National Registry of Exonerations, according to a registry analysis released this year. Yet, some states maintain time limits for conviction challenges, bar lawsuits from some who have been wrongly imprisoned and cap compensation. Most states have no formal oversight of prosecutors and federal law bars criminal charges for prosecutorial misconduct.

Wrongful convictions often follow false confessions, prompted by extended interrogations, isolation from family or lawyers, denial of sleep, food, water and bathroom breaks, threats or physical abuse. Sometimes they follow more subtle manipulation, such as false promises that the person will be allowed to go home or claims they have been implicated by others, Drizin said. Juveniles are the most likely to make false confessions.

“This is the moment, really, for a reckoning,” said Edwin Grimsley, a doctoral student in sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center who spent a decade as an Innocence Project case analyst.

In the years since the Central Park case, there have been some changes to prevent wrongful convictions. In 2017 — 27 years after prosecutors waited until trial to reveal that the DNA evidence found at the Central Park crime scene did not connect to any of the boys — New York became the first state where judges can punish prosecutors for that kind of action. Withholding evidence, even until trial, can make it impossible for defense lawyers to use it effectively. And 25 states now require certain police interrogations to be recorded. In 2018, New York began requiring police to record interrogations from start to finish.

New technology is also changing the criminal justice landscape.

“There may be many people comfortable believing that everyone found guilty is guilty, anyone arrested must have done something and there is no real reason police and prosecutors would ever participate in sending the wrong person to jail,” Grimsley said. “But now that we have not only DNA but expansive, familial DNA, it’s science that will make the truth a lot harder to deny.”

The United States has a massive backlog of untested DNA evidence in a range of cases, including sexual assaults and murders. Advances in DNA analysis — including familial DNA, which allows investigators to use DNA profiles of relatives to pinpoint a suspect — could soon unleash a new wave of overturned convictions, Grimsley said. He predicts that could lead to more intense media coverage, prompting changes in the way criminal justice work is done.

Already, the elements of a criminal justice travesty are better known today than they were when the Central Park Five were arrested 30 years ago. But the victims of such travesties often remain invisible.

When DuVernay took the stage at the Apollo Theater screening last month, she spoke about the work of making those once described as a wolfpack seen, making plain what was stolen from them, what was ground out of them and their families. It guided her toward the series’ name: “When They See Us.”