How ‘When They See Us’ is affecting views of justice system

Why We Wrote This

Flaws in the U.S. system of justice are being increasingly highlighted in documentaries and dramas, provoking public outcry and backlash. Might such programs help keep similar injustices from happening in the future?

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In the Netflix series ‘When They See Us,’ Marquis Rodriguez (l.) plays Raymond Santana, one of five young men wrongly convicted of rape in 1989. The program has caused public backlash against investigators and prosecutors involved in the case.

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“When They See Us” was the most-watched show on Netflix for seven days following its release at the end of May. It has continued to attract plaudits and criticism and has spurred a public backlash against investigators and prosecutors involved in the 1989 rape case. It is also the latest in a steady stream of documentaries and drama series exploring flaws in the American criminal justice system.

The four-part program follows the teenagers known as the Central Park Five from their arrests through their prison terms to their official exoneration in 2002. Similar series and documentaries have led to new charges or reexamination of convictions. “When They See Us” can’t have that kind of impact, as the men are already exonerated, and the result seems to have been more muddled targets for viewer outrage. The demand for consequences for prosecutors and detectives involved in the case has already resulted in a loss of livelihood in some instances. 

The show illustrates flaws that could be fixed with legislation and rule changes, says John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “That’s only going to happen,” he says, “as people understand how the system really works.”

When the drama “When They See Us” first came out last month, James Peterson had been afraid to watch it. He knew it wouldn’t be a happy story, but when he finally hit play and the first beats of Special Ed’s rap “I Got It Made” raised the curtain on the hit Netflix miniseries, he couldn’t help but start nodding along.

He was back in April 1989, his senior year of high school and the year when the so-called Central Park Five case made national headlines. Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay has dramatized the case of five young teenagers of color who were falsely convicted of beating and raping Trisha Meili, a white female jogger in the park – convictions that hinged decisively on confessions they made to police in the hours after the attack, confessions the men contend were coerced.

The four-part series follows the teenagers from their arrests through their prison terms and reentry to their official exoneration in 2002. It was the most-watched show on Netflix for seven days following its release on May 31. Since then it has continued to attract plaudits and criticism and has spurred a public backlash against investigators and prosecutors involved in the 1989 rape case. It is also the latest in a steady stream of documentaries and drama series exploring flaws in the American criminal justice system.

“When They See Us” seems to have taken this genre to a new level, observers say. The case’s well-documented procedural twists and turns are married with an intimate focus on the experiences of the five teens and their families, with it all punctuated by frequent (and sometimes blunt) hints that many of the biases and injustices seen in the case remain in the justice system – and society – today. Injustice is simultaneously recounted and foreshadowed. 

“There’s not much in ‘When They See Us’ that I wasn’t aware of, [criminal justice] system-wise, but to see it dramatized, and to be connected to the pain and anguish of those families, was something,” says Dr. Peterson, an author and expert on race, politics, and popular culture.

“It’s not a happy story; it’s not a big super sci-fi narrative,” he adds. “This is our reality depicted on film in a way that strikes like lightning.”

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Antron McCray (l.) with Caleel Harris, the young actor who portrays him in ‘When They See Us.’ The four-part dramatic series follows five teenagers from their arrests through their prison terms and reentry to their official exoneration in 2002.

Similar series and documentaries have led to new charges, or reexamination of convictions. “When They See Us” can’t have that kind of impact – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise have already been exonerated – and the result seems to have been more muddled targets for viewer outrage. There is a widespread demand for consequences for the prosecutors and detectives involved in the case. Ms. DuVernay has said she hopes the series makes the criminal justice system itself a target for outrage and reform. 

“Can we interrogate what’s happened in the past to safeguard ourselves from it happening in the future?” she said on “CBS This Morning” last month. “That’s why I’m such a student of history. I like to embed historical context in my work. We can only, kind of, better the situation if we realize the details of what happened.”

Past events, present ire

The pop culture focus on injustices has predictably led to calls for justice, or at least accountability. 

documentary released this year detailing sexual abuse allegations against R&B singer Robert “R.” Kelly led to new charges. The podcast “Serial” and the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively, drew national attention to appeals by Adnan Syed and Brendan Dassey against their murder convictions, which had been the subjects of the two shows’ debut seasons.

“When They See Us” has focused public ire on Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, the assistant district attorneys who led the prosecution of the Central Park Five. 

Ms. Lederer, still an assistant DA, announced last week that she will not return to a teaching position at Columbia Law School, after students presented a petition of 10,000 signatures protesting her position. This week, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. dismissed calls to fire her from his office. Ms. Fairstein, who left the district attorney’s office in 2002 and has become a successful author, was dropped by her book publisher last week and forced to resign from several charity boards as outrage over the case rekindled. More than 25,000 people have signed a petition calling for her to be prosecuted.

Ms. Fairstein has criticized the series, writing in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that it is “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.” This week President Donald Trump also declined to apologize for the newspaper ads he took out in 1989, telling reporters, “There were two sides to that. They admitted their guilt.”

But the reflex toward “cancel culture” – the social media-driven blacklisting of individuals after a controversy – may not be the only lens through which to look at the response to “When They See Us.” Ms. DuVernay said last month the series was partly about finding a way “to safeguard ourselves from it happening in the future.”

“One of my challenges around cancel culture is it goes to judgment sometimes too quickly, and in that sense we’re just like our criminal justice system,” says Dr. Peterson.

Reaction to the storytelling

In Texas, Vickye Murray is visiting Austin, spending a hot afternoon earlier this week at the George Washington Carver Museum with her sister and two friends. She says one scene, from the second episode of the series (mild spoiler follows), stuck out to her.

Sharonne Salaam is walking her son through a scrum of reporters to the courthouse for his trial. She is ignoring shouted questions, until one reporter asks if she has any response to Mr. Trump calling for the death penalty for her son. She spins around, clearly not having seen the full-page ads Mr. Trump had taken out in some local newspapers that read “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” 

“What did you say? What did you say?” Ms. Salaam repeats, her face a mask of anger and fear, before turning back around to hug her son.

“That stuck out to me,” Ms. Murray says, “because I think there are so many politicians who pass laws, but if it happened to their family they wouldn’t want to pass that law.” 

Although not a politician at that point, Mr. Trump features prominently in the series compared with other public figures of the time. (Then-Mayor Ed Koch, for example, called it “the crime of the century” and described the five teenagers as “monsters.”) It’s a creative decision that illustrates how Ms. DuVernay links past to present through the series.

Dr. Peterson remembers when he initially became sure the case against the five teenagers was problematic: when the mostly white media first began reporting on the groups of teens “wilding” in the park that night. The word was both seized on and misinterpreted. 

African Americans generally pronounce it “wilin’” and define it the way the Urban Dictionary does in this version: “any racy activity that exhibits a lack of wisdom or any common sense.” At the time, the media viewed wilding the way the Oxford English Dictionary now defines it: “a gang of youths ... going on a protracted and violent rampage.”

“The show depicts that immediately,” Dr. Peterson says. “It takes this misunderstanding of the vernacular to create this image of packs of black and brown teens roaming the park.” 

The case came at an inflection point for the American justice system. The crack cocaine epidemic had just begun to ravage poor communities of color in New York and violent crime was skyrocketing, but the tough-on-crime reactions of mandatory minimum sentences and mass incarceration – which have disproportionately targeted people of color – were still a few years away.

“It created tremendous momentum for the twin policies of ‘broken windows policing’ and ‘stop and frisk,’ which would be the central approaches to policing of the [Rudolph] Giuliani and [Michael] Bloomberg administrations, leading to massive arrests of young men of color for quality-of-life crimes,” says Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and lifelong New Yorker who grew up in Brooklyn.

Platform-specific approach 

This level of detail and nuance – the Special Ed opening, the attention to Mr. Trump, the focus on wilding and media coverage – may have been possible only on a platform like Netflix, says Mark Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.

“Network [television] wasn’t going to cover this. Cable might have, but I’m not sure [Ms. DuVernay] would have had the [same] freedom,” he adds. 

It could have been a film, but then it likely would have had to be at least one hour shorter, “and there’s no guarantee people will actually go to the theater,” he continues. “With Netflix, Hulu, streaming services, it allows it to come to the people in ways that people don’t have to work hard to get to it.”

The series also illustrates specific flaws in the justice system that could be fixed with legislation and rule changes, says John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who spent more than two decades as a criminal defense lawyer in California. Some jurisdictions have created commissions to investigate and review, and assign discipline for, prosecutorial misconduct. Bail reform could also mean less pretrial detention, which can be used as a threat to coerce confessions.

“There are a lot of discrete changes that can be made as well as more systemic changes,” adds Mr. Raphling. “That’s only going to happen as people understand how the system really works.”

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