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Netflix drama recalls Central Park Five scandal as innocent black teens were framed and convicted of white jogger’s rape

THE sheer violence of the assault rocked America. A pretty, white 28-year-old banker on her evening jog in New York’s Central Park was gagged, stripped, raped, tortured and battered to a  pulp.

The attack was so brutal that the first policeman on the scene said Trisha Meili’s body was “beaten as badly as anybody I’ve ever seen beaten”.

She was in a coma for 12 days. Her skull had 21 fractures, her left eye was dislodged from its socket. She lost more than 75 per cent of her blood, had severe hypothermia and a priest was summoned to the hospital to read the last rites.

Within hours, five young black and Hispanic boys were arrested, and four confessed on camera.

New Yorkers were horrified that their beloved green space had been turned into a hunting ground for violent rapists. Mayor Ed Koch branded the perpetrators “monsters” and a local tycoon named Donald Trump called for their executions.

But they were innocent.

Now the story of the Central Park Five and their 25-year fight for justice has been told in Netflix drama series When They See Us.

The four-parter, which has earned rave reviews, starts with the fateful night of April 19, 1989.

Trisha, dressed in black leggings and a white T-shirt, left her Upper East Side apartment just before 9pm.

The circular route usually took 40 minutes, taking her past the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then brushing past the much poorer and ethnically diverse district of Harlem.

‘BEYOND AFRAID’

The park had fallen into disrepair in the 1970s, suffering from vandalism and neglect. But at the time of the rape the tide was starting to turn after an £80million renovation restored landmarks, lawns and gardens.

That a 28-year-old woman felt safe jogging alone through the park at 9pm is testament to how its reputation had been re-built.

But 15 minutes into her run, Trisha was coshed across the back of her head with a tree branch, dragged 40 feet into woods and assaulted.

Four hours later, builders found her battered body and called the emergency services.

Police picked up five Harlem teenagers in connection with a string of assaults carried out in the park in an activity known as “wilding”. These were Yusef Salaam, 14, Korey Wise, 16, Antron McCray, 15, Kevin Richardson, 14 and Raymond Santana Jr, 14.

They were interrogated for up to 30 hours, sometimes with no parents present. Yusef later said they had been coerced into confessing, saying: “Police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours.”

It is claimed the boys were played off against each other, with police telling Raymond Santana that they had evidence against Kevin Richardson and Raymond could go home if he helped them.

Yusef added: “As soon as we get in, they separate us and they start working on us. I’m hearing Korey being physically beaten in the next room. I’m immediately beyond afraid.”

Raymond said recently: “You got to look at the landscape. You have to look at the fact that we’re 14, 15, 16-year-old kids who had never had involvement with the law, who had no criminal record.

“And these are seasoned detectives. So going into that situation, the playing field is already unlevel.”

Only the confessions were filmed, not the hours of interviews that led to them. Now 25 US states require electronic records of full interrogations, after a campaign by the five.

But back in 1989 a city riven by racial tension was gunning for justice. Long before he had designs on the White House, Donald Trump took out an advert in four New York news- papers calling for the  return of the death penalty.

In the ad, which did not specifically refer to the five, Trump wrote: “I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyse or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”

After two trials the teens were convicted of offences including attempted murder, rape, assault and robbery. Yusef said later: “I was 15. My aspirations were to watch The Cosby Show at night and to skateboard. They pointed at me and described me in a matter I could not recognise.”

Miraculously, Trisha made an almost complete recovery, barring some problems with balance and loss  of vision. At the time her identity was protected, but in 2003 she wrote a memoir, I Am The Central Park Jogger. She left her job and has since worked with sexual assault victims and as a motivational speaker.

In prison, the five were equally determined to reclaim their lives. In 2001 murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes met Korey Wise when they were both moved to the same jail. The chance encounter, together with finding religion, prompted Reyes to confess to Trisha’s assault.

In 2002 he gave police details of the crime which had not been made public, and DNA evidence supported his confession.

The convictions of the Central Park Five were overturned and in 2014 they received a settlement payment of £31million — though the money cannot erase their mental scars.

Antron McCray, 45, now a dad of six living in Atlanta, Georgia, said: “I’m damaged. It eats me up every day.” Yusef, who has ten children and also lives in Georgia, has devoted his life to fighting for criminal justice reform. In 2016, then-President   Barack Obama honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Korey Wise has also turned to activism, donating £150,000 of his settlement to Colorado’s Innocence Project, which campaigns for reforms to the criminal justice system.

‘MURDER OF CHILDREN’

After his release, Raymond Santana initially returned to prison twice, for a parole violation and for possessing crack cocaine. He has since founded a clothing company.

Kevin Richardson, who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children, said: “We always say we have invisible scars nobody sees.

“No matter how you cover it, the scab will keep coming off.” In 2002 lawyers for the group called for   Trump to apologise, but he refused, even after protesters picketed his New York business headquarters, Trump Tower.

When the men received their settlement, Trump wrote in the New York Daily News: “Settling doesn’t mean innocence but it indicates incompetence on several levels.”

Actor Joshua Jackson, who plays a lawyer in When They See Us, is outraged at Trump’s part in the tale.

He told the Hollywood Reporter magazine: “He was calling for the murder of children. That’s the  President of the United States. The murder of children.”

The drama’s director, Ava DuVernay said: “In their journey, we witness five innocent young men of colour who were met with injustice at every turn, from coerced confessions to unjust incarceration to public calls for their execution by the man who would go on to be the President of the United States.”

And since When They See Us was released on Netflix on May 31, Linda Fairstein, the Central Park Five prosecutor — who maintains the confessions were not coerced — has resigned from the board of trustees at New York’s Vassar College and has been dropped by her publisher.

There are petitions and social media calls for a boycott of her books.

Another prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, has resigned as a  professor at Columbia Law School following protests by black students.

Finally, after 30 years, the Five are certainly being seen now.

Central Park Five is set to provide a gripping crime series as well as explore the issue of racial prejudices

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