Editor’s Note: Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor and of counsel to the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I attended the prescreening of the first two episodes of Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix miniseries “When They See Us,” which tells the story of the unjustly imprisoned Central Park Five, at a packed Apollo Theater earlier this month.
I had served as the lawyer for the two Manhattan assistant district attorneys, former trial bureau chief Nancy Ryan and senior trial counsel Peter Casolaro, whose dogged reinvestigation of the case in 2002 resulted in the dismissal of all charges and freedom for the wrongfully convicted five men: Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana after many years in prison.
Ryan and Casolaro were entitled to legal representation as subpoenaed witnesses in the federal wrongful conviction lawsuit filed by the Central Park Five after dismissal of the charges against them.
Neither Ryan nor Casolaro cooperated in any way with the Netflix docudrama. They are old-fashioned prosecutors who prefer to confine their comments about cases to courts of law rather than on television “docudramas” and in tabloid newspapers. They believe that the true facts of the case can be found in the official documents relating to their reinvestigation.
Court filings supporting dismissal of the charges against the Central Park Five, which were authorized and approved by legendary New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, are now a matter of public record. In fact, thousands of pages of documents relating to the case are already available online thanks to the City of New York and continuing public interest in the case.
The reinvestigation of the case was triggered when 13 years after the original crime, an already imprisoned rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, confessed to the rape of the Central Park Jogger, a then 28-year-old investment banker named Trisha Meili. Matias’ criminal history during the years before his rape of Meili included rape, murder and even attempts at blinding his victims to avoid detection.
Reyes’ DNA was found on the body of the jogger and at the scene. Other incriminating evidence included presence of Reyes’ semen on the jogger’s clothing and his knowledge of details regarding the remote location of the rape in the North Woods of Central Park. The way the jogger was bound was consistent with a technique used by Reyes on other victims.
These facts convinced my initially skeptical clients and Morgenthau that Reyes was the true rapist. No DNA or physical evidence ever linked the Central Park Five to the jogger or the crime scene. The confessions of the Central Park Five were wildly contradictory and at odds with what was thought to be the known timeline of events relating to the rape that night.
The confessions used against them at trial were coerced by NYPD detectives using a combination of lies, false promises and occasionally even physical force to frighten the young defendants into admitting to crimes they never committed. These adolescents, sometimes in the presence of their own parents, after hours of interrogation had been convinced by sophisticated interrogating police detectives that they would only be released to go home if they admitted involvement in the rape of the jogger.
Police lied to their frightened suspects, asserting that they already had been implicated in the rape of the jogger by others also under interrogation. The cops were using a then accepted interrogation technique resulting in what some forensic psychologists refer to as “coerced-compliant false confessions.”
Despite the complete lack of physical evidence connecting them to the crime, the Five were convicted and sent to prison in the heated atmosphere of fear and racism which haunted a crime-ridden, seemingly out of control New York City in those years. Two weeks after the attack, Donald Trump, as documented in the Netflix series, ran ads in New York newspapers including the New York Times calling for the death penalty.
Trump did not specifically name the Central Park Five in the ads, instead addressing criminals at large. But prefiguring the extremism of the comments he would later make on Twitter on other topics, he wrote: “At what point did we cross the line from the fine and noble pursuit of genuine civil liberties to the reckless and dangerously permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman … I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”
The ultimate shame is that even to this day some of the detectives and assistant district attorneys who were the moving force behind this tragic case refuse to concede that they sent five innocent men to prison.
The City of New York, after dragging its feet for years, finally did settle the five men’s civil case against the City for a total of about $40 million, providing a settlement level of about $1 million per year of unjust incarceration. For Wise, who spent 13 years in prison, this would amount to the largest settlement in a wrongful conviction case. Sadly, though no amount of money can give back the years taken away from the Five through the use of coerced confessions which were initially sanctioned by New York courts.
In an ironic twist of fate, the actor playing the role of Linda Fairstein, the sex crimes unit chief during the trial, who has been criticized for her handling of the case, is none other than Felicity Huffman, now a convicted felon in the college admissions scandal.
Huffman turns in a powerful and convincing performance as a tough prosecutor intent on building a case against the Five, though the tactics employed by the character she portrays sparked boos from a vocal audience at the Apollo. Fairstein has always denied wrongdoing in the case, continuing to assert that the convictions of the Central Park Five were proper.
The largely African-American crowd at the Apollo understood the reality of what had happened to the Five. The miniseries elicited anger, tears and even booing directed at some of the law enforcement characters depicted in the film. Too often audience members have seen the injustice of overly aggressive policing and its impact on the lives of their own kids.
When all was over, Oprah Winfrey appeared on stage and the original Central Park Five joined the actors who played them in the series with hugs and high emotion all around.
Viewers should understand, though, that this is a docudrama based on a true story, a somewhat fictionalized version of a very real and sad chapter in the history of New York City’s criminal justice system. For example, a scene showing Fairstein and top Manhattan prosecutor, Nancy Ryan, arguing about the jogger case at the precinct on the night of the arrests of the Five never happened. Ryan was not even at the precinct that night. Though the show is likely to be criticized by some for not being a literal recitation of the facts of a very complicated case, the core concepts about the injustice and unfairness which pervaded the handling of the case are accurate. The series will offer a valuable lesson concerning a tragic miscarriage of justice which has left an indelible stain on the criminal justice system of New York City.