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Ava DuVernay's new Netflix series sheds light on the horrors of wrongful incarceration

“The story of formerly incarcerated people in this country is one that's little told. It’s not told enough.”
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It was a gruesome crime that gripped the headlines in 1989. Trisha Meili was brutally assaulted and raped in New York City’s Central Park while she was out jogging one night. Authorities proclaimed that five teenagers, famously branded the “Central Park Five,” were the perpetrators. Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana were 14 to 16 years old at the time.

Years later, the country would learn these young teens were wrongfully convicted, serving between six to 13 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

“The time that we lost, we can’t get that back,” Kevin Richardson told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview along with the group. “We lost our youth, our youthful years.”

Their stories are profiled in the upcoming Netflix series "When They See Us," a four-episode drama which was directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay. The limited series chronicles the journeys of the five men over the course of 25 years through their trials to their release from prison.

“I always go back to whose story am I telling and is this choice helping to tell their story, in the most dynamic way, the most truthful way, for them,” DuVernay told Holt.

DuVernay, known for directing social justice films like “Selma” and big budget movies like “A Wrinkle in Time,” felt it was critical to tell the story of how false confessions landed the five teenagers in prison for crimes they did not commit.

“I think folks may think this is just about the story of the five boys. But these boys became men and then had to carry the weight of the verdict, of their sentence on their back when they get out,” DuVernay said. “The story of formerly incarcerated people in this country is one that's little told. It’s not told enough.”

The five black and Latino teens initially confessed to the crime to police but would later say their admissions were coerced by officers during hours of interrogations.

The Netflix series depicts how the teenagers say that they were physically assaulted and faced with mounting pressure to admit to crimes they did not commit because they just wanted to get home. "When They See Us" also includes the full-page advertisements Donald Trump purchased in local New York City newspapers in May 1989 calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty.

“It was a measured approach to him,” DuVernay said of Trump's actions. “We only show what he says for himself, so, we use his own words.”

At the time, Korey Wise was 16 years old. Wise says he was beaten before he gave a false confession. He was the only one who was convicted as an adult and served time in adult prison facilities.

“They beat Korey up as soon as we got into the precinct,” Yusef Salaam said. ”He wasn’t even on the list of suspects. They separated us. I’m hearing him getting beat up in the next room. They’re coming into the room that I’m in and telling me that I’m next. I mean, this was beyond a horror story.”

Although there was no DNA evidence linking any of the teenage boys to the crime, they were found guilty, each convicted on different charges including rape, assault and robbery in two separate trials.

Matias Reyes had been incarcerated since 1991 for committing murder and other rapes. In 2002, Reyes confessed that he was actually the perpetrator in the 1989 Central Park crime. DNA from the crime scene confirmed that Reyes was in fact guilty.

As a result of his admission, the convictions of Salaam, McCray, Richardson, Wise and Santana were vacated in 2002. But the scars, 30 years later, all five men still live with are both physical and emotional.

Meili told NBC News, "I unfortunately have no memory of the events of April 19, 1989, as a result of the brain injury I suffered in the attack and rape. On the opening title screen of the DuVernay Netflix series, it is positioned as 'based on a true story.' I am troubled that the series is not a factual account."

In 1989, Linda Fairstein led the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes. Last year, Fairstein continued to defend the work of the prosecution, writing, “the confessions were not coerced.”

“I have pure hatred for the people that, you know, put us away for something we didn't do. Pure hatred,” McCray said. “I can't let it go and I won't. I even promised my mother, cause my mother, she passed away, but she asked me to just to get that hatred outta my heart, to move on with my life. But I can't.”

McCray said it’s painful that they never received an apology from anyone directly involved with the case.

According to The Sentencing Project, people of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population but 67 percent of the prison population, and black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.

“I hope that you will look at these men and say they were wronged, they're innocent, and let them represent a large part of the incarcerated population who are behind bars for similar scenarios, scenarios where they've been profiled, where they've taken plea deals, where they've not been able to even be found guilty in a court of law,” DuVernay said.

In 2014, then-newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio called the notorious case “a moral issue,” and said New York City had a moral obligation to respond to the injustice. All five men settled the lawsuit with the city for $41 million. But the men say no amount of money can fix the trauma they endured.

“There was a whole bunch of suppressed trauma that you hadn't realized you didn't deal with because now it's 30 years later,” Salaam said. “You realize that seeing a series like this paints the picture of what it is like to be a person of color in America. And we, for what we went through and what it represents for the rest of the world is tremendous.”