The stories of each of the Central Park Five are tragic. In 1989, the teenagers were coerced into confessing to a horrifying rape in the city’s famous park, and were later falsely convicted despite a lack of physical evidence. But while the four younger boys, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, served their time in juvenile facilities before being transferred to adult jails at age 21, one of the boys served both the longest and harshest sentence. The eldest, 16-year-old Korey Wise, portrayed masterfully by Jharrel Jerome in Netflix’s When They See Us, served more than 13 years in violent adult prisons.
As the only 16-year-old, Wise could be interrogated without a guardian present, making him the only teen to whom investigators had unfettered access. He was also uniquely vulnerable to their coercion. Wise, wrote Sarah Burns in her book, The Central Park Five, “had hearing problems from an early age, and a learning disability that limited his achievement in school.” In 1989, Wise was a gentle, loyal boy who stood no chance when facing some of New York’s best detectives in an interrogation room.
Wise wasn’t a suspect initially, but was brought into the station along with his friend Salaam, whom investigators sought out after 28-year-old Trisha Meili was raped and beaten nearly to death in Central Park. Once in police custody, officials questioned Wise through the night, and eventually persuaded him to produce four different statements—two written and two videotaped confessions. The details he offered varied widely and diverged entirely from the facts of the case; he described Meili as having been cut with a knife when she’d received blunt force trauma, and he claimed to have witnessed the attack from behind a tree, when no fitting tree existed at the crime scene. Later, DNA and physical evidence would fail to link him to the crime.
Wise’s age also meant that he spent his pre-trial imprisonment and the nearly 14 years of his sentence in adult facilities. These prisons were often violent places that afforded the 16-year-old, five-foot-five kid little protection from other inmates and abusive guards. Director Ava DuVernay devoted nearly a full episode of When They See Us to the physical and mental abuse Wise suffered during his lonely incarceration.
“One of the things that really struck me was when Korey said to me, ‘There is no Central Park Five. It was four plus one. And no one has told that story,’” DuVernay told Town & Country. “I think it’s important for people to understand the depths of what it means to be incarcerated in adult prisons in this country.”
New York has changed since 1989. The city’s infamous Rikers Island jail, where Wise was initially held, will close by 2026. And in 2017, the state passed its Raise the Age law, ending the practice of automatically treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Up to 25,000 teenagers a year that may otherwise have endured criminal court and adult prisons will instead be sent to family court and juvenile programs.
Still, the law leaves room for children accused of serious crimes to be treated as adults. It makes exceptions for “extraordinary circumstances” that include violent sexual assaults of the kind inflicted on Meili. Technically, it still possible for an innocent 16-year-old to be treated as an adult by the state.
After their convictions were overturned in 2002, the five men filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city, eventually settling the case for $40 million. Wise still lives in New York City, and is a criminal justice activist. In 2016, he donated $190,000 to Colorado’s Innocence Project.
“You can forgive, but you won’t forget,” Wise said in an interview for Sarah and Ken Burns’s 2012 Central Park Five documentary. “You won’t forget what you lost. No money could bring that time back. No money could bring the life that was missing or the time that was taken away.”