I just finished watching the Netflix original series When They See Us. It is a fictional depiction of the “Exonerated Five,” the four young black and one Afro-Latino teenage boys who were charged and eventually convicted as the attackers in the case of the Central Park jogger. That case from 1989 generated the term “wilding” and began a visual depiction of young people who were just out of their minds, dangerous and destructive.
Since the series’ debut, it has generated a lot of feedback and fallout against those who were once considered to be heroes of the case. Linda Fairstein, head of the sex crime unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office at the time of the arrest of the Exonerated Five, was the first to feel the wrath of outrage generated by the series. Next, Assistant District Attorney Linda Lederer, who prosecuted the case, has been forced to resign from her Columbia Law School position. There’s been a lot of additional scrutiny pointed toward many, but the ones who should face the deepest scrutiny … we don’t know who they are. And it’s 12 of them. They were the jurors who found those young men guilty.
We all know that when we face a trial, we should sit before “a jury of our peers.” But are they really our peers? The average person tries to avoid jury duty at all costs. But when something like the Central Park case happens, and you have to go into a trial, it is those 12 individuals who can listen to the evidence and decide one’s fate. And if they are 12 people who don’t really want to do their civic duty, how much will they truly care? How much will they pay attention to the evidence? And will they allow one person to direct them into a verdict even if their gut feeling says otherwise?
Two separate trials eventually found all five of those young boys, even though no physical evidence was presented. DNA was still a relatively new science for the average person back in 1989, but none of their DNA was found at the scene. The semen found on the victim’s body didn’t match any of the five defendants. They were teenage boys who hadn’t had any contact with the law, and yet the jury listened to what the prosecutor presented, and found them guilty.
If we as a society want to get mad at someone, we first need to get mad at ourselves. Because in a system where we get to judge, then it is our civic duty to do so with intent. Not to dread the jury notification, looking for myriad excuses not to go. And if picked to be on a jury, to actually pay attention and listen to the evidence.
And to think. Critical thinking seems in short supply of late, as well as asking the hard questions. As a juror, one should make sense of what has been presented — and use what jurors have always been able to do, which is find reasonable doubt if it doesn’t make sense. If nothing in the case points toward the five people other than their alleged confession, which they later recanted, does it make sense that they are guilty?
The criminal justice system can implement many reforms. But the first reform starts with us, the voting public, who are eligible to be jurors.
Let’s take that civic responsibility with a lot more seriousness!