A lesson from an American documentary

If you can, catch the 2019 award-winning true-crime TV miniseries, When They See Us, available on Netflix. Based on events that happened on April 19, 1989 at Central Park, New York City, it documents the prosecution, conviction and jail terms of five black youths who were falsely charged with assaulting and raping a white woman jogger at the park.

The five who came to be known as the Central Park Five were later exonerated of the attacks based on the confession in 2002 by Matias Reyes who admitted to the rape of the woman and took full responsibility for it. As a result of the false charges, the five youths spent between seven to 13 years in jail. The five took a case against the NYC for wrongful imprisonment and both sides agreed to a US$40 million settlement to the five in 2014.

The case – and the TV series — drew widespread attention as it depicted how the New York Police Department and prosecutors locked into the narrative of a black assailant on an unarmed white woman which reflected the racial tensions between the two communities at that time. The five were between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were arrested and interrogated.

The documentary excludes other important information such as the fact that 10 youths were arrested and prosecuted for various charges related to the events on the night of the rape and all served time but the Central Park Five’s convictions were later vacated when Reyes confessed.

What makes this a documentary worth watching is how falsehood is created and trumped up as a basis for conviction. Luckily for the Central Park Five, the real rape assailant confessed and they were set free although they served time for crimes they didn’t commit.

It is an unfortunate experience that police departments and courts all over the world can learn from. The Malaysian police, prosecutors, lawyers and the courts — and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) as well — need to be vigilant so that innocent citizens are not subject to social, religious and political profiling or vendetta and go to jail for crimes they did not commit.

Wrongful prosecution, wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment should never happen as it involves innocent people who may be damaged for life because of it.

That’s a mistake that should never happen.



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