One April 19, 1989, Tricia Meili, then a 28-year-old investment banker, went on a routine jog on the northern side of New York City’s Central Park, not far from where she lived. Before the night was over, she was bludgeoned, raped and left for dead. To this day, she does not remember who attacked her, but Manhattan prosecutors determined that five Harlem boys — Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray, ages 14 to 16, confessing under coercion and without credible evidence — committed the terrible crime. They were given sentences ranging from five to 11 years, keeping them incarcerated into their adult lives.
But the prosecutors were wrong.
After a public tsunami of outrage in which New Yorkers, grappling with an alarming crime rate of more than 2,200 homicides and 5,200 rapes that year, turned their full attention to the five teens, in some cases demanding execution (Donald Trump took out full-page ads in four daily newspapers calling for the death penalty), after politicians like former mayor Ed Koch had already convicted them in the public gallery. In 2002, after they had served their sentences, Mathias Reyes — who was already serving 33 years to life behind bars for murder and rape — confessed to the attack. The courts exonerated the five, clearing their records of any crimes committed relating to the case. A lawsuit against the city is pending.
Fast forward to 2011, when Sarah Burns, daughter of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, published The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York’s Most Infamous Crimes, examining the vicious outcry behind the case, the prosecutors’ jumbled rush to get convictions and the racial and socioeconomic atmosphere in which it all happened.
In 2012 Burns collaborated as a co-director with her father and producer David McMahon on the documentary of the same name, examining how the teens wound up imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. TIME sat down with Burns and four of the men, now in their 30s (the fifth, Antron McCray, does not do interviews regarding his ordeal, nor does he appear in the film, save for voice recordings), to talk about the film, what they have experienced and why — after all they’ve been through — they are not bitter.
TIME: This is a hard story to tell, and one that a lot of people would want to leave behind. Why tell it?
Raymond Santana: Because we don’t want people to leave it behind. We were done so wrongly by the media and by the court system. Now that we have been vacated of all charges and everything has changed around and the powers that be want to forget about it — this is the reason why we want to tell it.
Yusef Salaam: There’s so many things that have come out of this that the city uses, the police department uses, as a basis for what they do — things like “stop and frisk.” The fact that young people are still looked at as being guilty before they can be looked at as being innocent, just because of the color of their skin.
Kevin Richardson: In ’89, we really didn’t have a voice. We were scared to speak because the negative publicity was overwhelming, so now we want to keep this fresh because we have a story to tell. Our story, the true story. And it’s amazing for people to see us as grown men now. You think, back then, the proof was there for people, but the media frenzy was so strong, people didn’t really use logic. They automatically were like, “Oh, they got guys. They’re guilty.” But if they would have taken a little time to use a little logic, then we probably wouldn’t be here speaking about this. It might be a different situation.
Korey Wise: To go from kids, man, kids of New York to being called “menaces to society” … It’s just sad how our lives turned into a raw deal … They kidnapped me. I would call them terrorists. They kidnapped me.
This is probably the most you’ve talked about the case outside of the court system. What was the most significant thing to come back to you?
Santana: Sarah gave us an opportunity to tell our whole story from beginning to end, so it’s all significant. It’s all important. It is finally a chance for us to be like, “Whew, there it is. I just got it all out.”
Salaam: I think for me, just being able to talk about it … It was like a breath of fresh air to tell our story … We were able to talk about our experiences. We were able to talk about the prison time we went through, what was it like when we came home from prison.
Sarah, was there anything that particularly struck you when you were doing all the interviews and all the research?
Burns: Over the course of working on the book, I talked to these guys a bunch of times over the years. But with the film, it was a little different. I think there’s something about the presence of a camera that just changes the way an interview happens. These interviews were maybe 2 1/2 hours long, but there’s a sense that’s like, Let’s try to tell the story. Let’s try to cover this whole thing. It was the sense that it was getting something off your chest. That it was not going to be easy or fun to talk about this stuff, but that it was important and maybe even cathartic to be able to just put it all out there.
There’s still people out there who are just as convinced of your guilt, even now. Is this film going to change their minds?
Salaam: We were in Connecticut with Ken Burns, and one of Ken’s friends comes up to me while me and Korey were hanging out and says, “You know, we heard Ken Burns was doing this film with his daughter about the Central Park Five. We’d thought he’d lost his mind. We couldn’t understand why was he making a film about this.” Almost like this was a bad thing. And she says to me, “This film is the icing on the cake. We’ve never seen a film done so well. We believed that you guys were guilty, and I’m so sorry that we believed that. Because you guys are obviously not.”
Korey, you were 16 — the oldest of the five, old enough to get your driver’s license in some states, on the cusp of manhood. What did you see when you saw yourself on film? Did you see a different person? Did you see a person you wish you could reach back and talk to and console a little bit?
Wise: I went through hell, man. I’m still going through it within myself. But I went through hell to see where we’re at right now. As I’m listening to my brothers’ stories, I’m going through hell. I’m fighting damn near every day. To give you a picture of what I’m talking about, I’m going back to Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. I’m going through that. Spit in the face. Punched in the face. So I came across peace of mind. I came across redemption. All I can get from the streets, the real streets, is, “I apologize, man.”
In the film you describe the moment that the false confessions were coerced. Did you realize when you were talking about this that maybe people might gasp at those moments?
Richardson: People needed to hear that we really went through that. This really happened to us. People tend to realize that we were so young and naive that we were fragile — not just physically, mentally too. We weren’t prepared for what we were about to endure. When we were in the precinct, we didn’t see daylight. We didn’t even know what was happening on the outside.
Santana: When we tell people this story, it’s hard for them to believe it. Like Yusef always says, they’ll think that this is fiction. And so what happens is that people go into this story saying, “Well, how can you confess to something you didn’t do? If that was me, I would have never confessed.” But what happens is that when they see the movie … then it becomes very real.
Burns: The best part for me in bringing this film out in the world has been witnessing what happens between these guys and an audience. Just to be there in the space and to feel this sort of communion that happens of sharing the story and of the support and the love — it’s been really extraordinary. The most important part of the film is that people who didn’t necessarily have anything in common maybe now can relate somehow to your experience, to your family life. These connections are being made between people who are sharing this story and feeling something about it. To me, that’s a success.
(PHOTOS: Ken Burns, American Filmmaker)
Yet you’re not walking around bitter and angry.
Burns: That was the first thing that struck me when I met each and every one of them in working on the book and doing these interviews. I had imagined they’d be hardened by this prison experience or bitter in a certain way, and that’s sort of the opposite of what I found.
Richardson: None of us are bitter. We’re disgusted. We’re disgusted with the city for what happened to us. I tend to say this in certain screenings — that if we continue to be bitter, we’ll be bitter all the way until the grave. So we all found a way to challenge that negative energy and turn it into a positive. So us going around speaking is very extremely therapeutic to us because we used to keep our emotions bottled in. Sarah, Ken and [writer] Dave [McMahon] gave us that platform to finally be heard. So now when people meet us, they say, “You guys are articulate.” [Chuckles.] We’re human beings. We just want to live in this society, and that’s it.
Santana: Back then in ’89, we were so young, and we were taken advantage of by the media. We got exonerated, and they rewarded us with a small print on Page 12. Now we have our voices back, and so now they have to deal with us for the rest of our lives.
Last question — and you all can give me a one-word answer if you want to. Did anybody in the legal system, the court system, cops, corrections, anybody since the exoneration come up to you and say, “We f—ed up!”?