Watching five black and Latino teens be wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a woman in Netflix’s "When They See Us" inspires indignation that can be hard to handle.
And while the four-part series aims to clear The Central Park Five’s names and start a conversation about black representation, it can still leave viewers at a loss for what to do about injustice.
Sometimes it’s easier to shut down than to help, but being incensed can actually be an opportunity to exercise the power you have.
"Having the reaction that people are having presents an opportunity for people to get involved in the larger reform conversation and to understand that the wrongful convictions are not anomalous events and are more symptomatic of a criminal justice system that needs to be re-imagined," Rebecca Brown, the Innocence Project’s director of policy, said. "I think this case brought out so many of those factors — we saw that race played a huge factor in this case and young black men were painted with a broad brush."
The Innocence Project helped overturn the convictions of the Central Park Five and exonerated nine innocent people in 2018.
Filmmaker Sarah Burns, who produced "The Central Park Five" documentary in 2012, said "it can be frustrating and sometimes demoralizing to feel like things aren’t changing. It should also be about saying, how can we try to make changes, make systemic changes, right?"
We asked them both about how members of the public can help the wrongfully convicted and turn their anger into action. Here are a few suggestions:
Burns and Brown recommended other media to consume:
- "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander and its website: "It really just explains our system of mass incarceration and where it came from in a beautiful way," Burns said.
- "The Psychological Phenomena That Can Lead to Wrongful Convictions" by the Innocence Project, which is a series of videos of seven experts explaining the human factors that impact criminal investigations. One addresses implicit and racial bias and another the false confession phenomenon.
- "False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent" by the former Attorney General of Ohio Jim Petro and his wife Nancy that uses real cases to expose common myths that inspire confidence in the justice system.
- The Wrongful Convictions Blog, which makes daily updates to news on wrongful convictions.
- "Making a Murderer" on Netflix follows the case of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who have been convicted of the murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach.
Read up on other films, books, articles on the Innocence Project’s multimedia syllabus.
Support/donate to innocence organizations
- The Innocence Project: Based in New York City, the organization works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted through the use of DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system, as well as support exonerees after they’ve been released. Cases they’ve been in involved in include The Central Park Five (2002) and Avery (2003).
- The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth: Based in Chicago, it drives criminal justice reforms to prevent children from being coerced into confessions. It is currently making a case for Dassey of "Making a Murderer" fame.
- Equal Justice Initiative: Based in Alabama, it provides legal representation to the wrongly convicted, prisoners from low-income backgrounds and those denied a fair trial, but also pushes for racial justice, juvenile justice, and against mass incarceration and the death penalty.
Head to the Innocence Network website for a list of more than 67 organizations that do pro bono legal and investigative work for the wrongfully convicted. It includes groups from around the world and offers resources to them. Innocence Project, New York Law School Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, Reinvestigation Project, and the Exoneration Initiative are members.
Many of these organizations hold rallies that people can attend.
On Monday, Marisleyce Rodriguez and Ciarra Craig, both 19 and from Queens, were in front of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office with signs urging him to "Reopen the Fairstein Cases." Linda Fairstein was the prosecutor in the Central Park Five case.
Craig said she felt that the rally was a "great beginning to a beautiful movement."
Get hands-on by supporting local groups who help prisoners and their families
Know the challenges
Do your research to find out what advocates are working on.
Right now, the Innocence Project is working on reforms to prohibit the use of deception during an interrogation.
"Among other reforms, we intend to capture this moment and take a hard look at interrogation methods," Brown said. "We are hearing from various corners from the law enforcement community that there is increased interest in different ways of doing this. Current methods are fallible and lead to wrongful convictions and certain populations are particularly vulnerable — young people."
She said that once a confession is taken, it is incredibly hard to regain innocence.
"We’re looking to a new way of interviewing witnesses or suspects to ensure reliable outcomes," she said. "Historically, we have focused much of our work on video or electronic recording, which now more than half the states require, but we’re working to get the entire country and next-generation reform in the area of addressing presumptive guilt."
Sign up online at innocenceproject.org/pledge to get emails about their campaigns and other updates.
Vote and contact your elected representatives
You have more power than you might think. By voting and contacting your local elected officials, you can help bring about change.
Brown says that district attorney elections are very important in fighting against wrongful convictions.
"This is critical and I think people don’t always comprehend the great power the prosecutor’s office holds," she said. "Getting out to vote is a key way the public can use their voice."
With Meghan Giannotta