Lessons from Netflix’s When They See Us

We love a good Netflix series as much as anyone else. But our latest pick goes far further than simply a good watch – it’s a harrowing, poignant and gut-wrenching series detailing the events of five young men in America wrongfully convicted of attempted murder and rape. 

Dubbed ‘essential viewing’ by actor LeVar Burton, this series is making waves across the globe – as it should. It’s called When They See Us, and it takes viewers on the horrific journeys of Antron Mccray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise who spent between 6–13 years incarcerated after being  wrongfully convicted of attacking 28-year-old Trisha Meili in 1989. In 2002, these men were fully exonerated.

The series centers upon one of the most highly-publicised cases in American history. On the night of April 19th, 1989, Meili was jogging in Central Park when she was brutally attacked, raped and left for dead. She was found naked, gagged and tied, clinging to life in a shallow ravine around 1:30 am the following morning. Meili was in a coma for 12 days.

During Meili’s time in a coma, police were fabricating a case against five young African-American and Latino men. Mccray, Richardson, Santana, Salaam and Wise became suspects in the case simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time: they too occupied Central Park at a similar time to the attack, in a large group of African-American boys. Of this group of around 30 boys, some participated in assault and robberies of cyclists and walkers. Many of them were simply hanging out.  

‘Acting disorderly’ was how the police referred to the behaviour of the group. A far cry from the brutal rape, beating and attempted murder of Meili, which was occurring elsewhere in the park by a Matias Reyes. 

When it comes to wrongful convictions, at Green & Associates we believe that understanding our own societal biases and how our criminal justice system operates is step one to preventing these miscarriages of justice. Step two is teaching people how to enforce their legal rights and not let authorities take advantage of them which, to a viewer’s horror, is exactly how the boys in When They See Us go down. 

The series conveys the police misconduct and intimidation that caused false confessions by Mccray, Santana, Richardson and Wise (Salaam did not sign a confession, but was implicated by the others). What these confessions fail to disclose is that they occurred after hours and hours of illegal questioning, where the suspects received no food or water, had no parental supervision and were coaxed into confessing on the premise that ‘if you agree to this, you can go home.’ 

‘Coaxed’ is putting it lightly. Police created a terrifying environment through shaking these young men, grabbing their faces, demanding their stories match the police’s version of events, branding them liars and shouting at them to tell the truth. 

These false confessions were central to their convictions. Jurors found it impossible to believe they would confess to crimes they had not committed. Despite there being no physical evidence supporting the prosecution’s argument, the prosecution’s legal expertise controlled the narrative that these boys were guilty. Journalist Tim Minton described the prosecution’s legal team as ‘the New York Yankees’, while the defence’s team was ‘more like your high school basketball team.’  These young men never stood a chance.

It would be naive to dismiss these false confessions as rare. In the States, 90% of those incarcerated have never gone to trial; they’ve simply pleaded out. In Australia, law students are taught about ‘gratuitous concurrence’, the act of agreeing with the questions put forth by an interrogator in the hope of placating them. It occurs too often, because when you’re in police custody, you have very little power and understanding as to the repercussions of your statements. You also don’t know which tactics the police will employ to get you talking, which is one of the reasons having adequate legal representation is so important.

When They See Us goes further than simply highlighting the impact of police misconduct and inadequate legal representation. Delving into the difficulties of rehabilitation, struggles to land employment and isolation from their community, viewers witness how the horrors of a prison sentence extend past the confines of prison itself. Of course, it doesn’t shy away from the police corruption, brutality and isolation that occurs behind bars as well. Viewers will likely find the retelling of Wise’s experience in adult prisons, which features horrific violence and abuse, particularly gut-wrenching.

But it’s important. It’s essential viewing because When They See Us demonstrates the power imbalance between the police and everyday people. It showcases why an agenda to secure convictions completely fails to achieve justice and it’s a frightening reminder that without decent legal representation, you become increasingly vulnerable to fitting your accuser’s version of events.

We’ve said before that you should never speak to police without consulting a lawyer first. This series unveils why your right to remain silent is paramount to the administration of justice. If you’re taken into police custody, you have the right to refrain from answering questions (aside from identifying yourself) until you have contacted a lawyer. If you find yourself in this situation, contact Green & Associates on  (02) 8080 7585 as quickly as possible. 

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