Ava DuVernay’s compelling miniseries, When They See Us, exposes the nuanced details of the Central Park Jogger case from the perspective of the 5 falsely accused boys and their families. The miniseries also opens up an opportunity to have a conversation about the broken American justice system, the corrupt individuals who run it, and how we can empower ourselves to overcome tyranny.
Synopsis of the Case
On April 19, 1989, Matias Reyes brutally beat and raped a white female jogger in Central Park. Five black and brown teenagers (aged 14-16) were arrested, taken into custody, interrogated, tried and convicted of the crime despite questionable testimonies and no DNA evidence linking them to the rape. A team of overzealous detectives and prosecutors lead by Linda Fairstein coerced the five boys for nearly 2 days into testifying against each other and admitting their own guilt. The boys spent between 6 and 14 years in prison and were exonerated when Reyes, an already convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to having committed the rape and battery alone. In 2003, the young men who came to be known as the Central Park Five sued the city of New York for $41 million, which was rewarded to them in 2014.
The Reid Technique
With empathic precision, the first episode of the series showed how interrogators violated the boys’ rights and intimidated the boys into developing false testimonies against one another. The methods used in this case were both extreme and illegal. However, the Reid Technique, a widely taught and accepted method of interrogation, is completely legal and has, on many occasions, resulted in confessions of guilt by innocent detainees. DuVernay cleverly provided audiences with this Easter egg during a dramatized bar scene confrontation between District Attorney Nancy Ryan, the prosecutor in charge of re-investigating the case following Matias Reyes’s confession (played by Famke Janssen) and Detective Michael Sheehan, one of the detectives who initially interrogated the boys (played by William Sadler). The Reid Technique consists of 9 steps that interrogators use to break suspects down.
The Reid Technique’s Nine Steps of Interrogation
Interrogators are relentless because they're trained to be that way. The only way to win at their game is to know how they think. In their world, you're guilty until proven innocent. Below are the nine steps that interrogators use to squeeze a guilty plea out of just about anybody.
Step 1: The Positive Confrontation. This is when the interrogator tells the suspect that they’re guilty, but expresses sympathy and understanding in order to disarm the suspect into admitting guilt.
Interrogator Example: “We know you served unseasoned chicken to your family on Thanksgiving. If you admit it now, this process will be easier and we'll have you home by dinner time.”
Blue Says: Don’t believe them! It’s a trap! They don’t know anything! And nothing gets easier. Stay quiet and ask for a lawyer!!
Step 2: Theme Development. This is when the interrogator places moral blame on an external person or factor. This is done to make the suspect feel validated.
Interrogator Example: “I understand why you wouldn’t season the chicken. Everybody has high blood pressure. You were just trying to keep your family alive this year.”
Blue Says: It doesn’t matter who has high blood pressure! You never serve unseasoned chicken! They don't care about your family! They don't even care about their own family! They are not your friend!
Step 3: Handling Denials. It is always expected that a suspect, whether guilty or innocent, will try to defend his or herself. How the suspect chooses to vocalize defense is seen as evidence of guilt or innocence.
Blue Says: Didn’t I tell you not to say anything until you talked to a lawyer? If you’re talking at this point, there is no help for you. I can’t. I…I just…I can’t.
Step 4: Overcoming Objections. This is when the interrogator takes every defense and spins it to affirm guilt in the suspect. No matter what the suspect says in their defense, their words are weaponized against them.
Interrogator Example: “Naturally, you love your family. But in families, there is often a lot of animosity. I’m sure you had a perfect reason for serving unseasoned chicken. Maybe to get back at your aunt for stealing your boyfriend?”
Blue Says: It’s not too late to STFU.
Step 5: Procurement and Retention of Suspect’s Attention. At this point, the suspect is assumed to be guilty. The interrogator sits closer and begins to revisit Step 2 towards the extraction of a confession.
Blue Says: I know you’re all emotional and whatnot, but this ain’t the time to start catching feelings.
Step 6: Handling the Suspect’s Passive Mood. The interrogator assumes guilt and the suspect shows signs of giving up their plea of innocence. During this time, the interrogator shows even more sympathy and solidarity with the suspect. If the suspect cries, guilt is inferred.
Blue Says: You done f****ed up.
Step 7: Presenting an Alternative Question. This is when the interrogator offers another “opportunity to understand” the suspect by allowing the suspect to choose 2 alternatives as to how the crime went down. However, any answer would be an admittance of guilt.
Interrogator Example: “Is this the first time you’ve served unseasoned chicken, or is this just how you prepare your chicken?”
Blue Says: Can’t you see? You’re guilty either way!!! Where’s your lawyer?
Step 8: Having the Suspect Orally Relate Various Details of the Offense. Once Step 7 has resulted in an answer that clearly establishes admittance of guilt, the interrogator acknowledges and reinforces the suspects answer.
Interrogator Example: “So let me get this straight: You just don’t season your chicken ever, so no one should be mad about you bringing unseasoned chicken to the table on Thanksgiving.”
Blue Says: You may as well give up now. Even if it wasn’t your chicken, you’re going down for this one.
Step 9: Converting an Oral Confession to a Written Confession. After sufficiently determining the guilt of the suspect, the interrogator leaves the room and returns with a third party who can bear witness to a written confession of guilt.
Blue Says: Looks like you’ll be on cool aid duty next year. Don't f*** it up.
As you can probably tell, the entire interrogation process is a mind game that would only be attributed to psychopaths* if it weren’t part of a curriculum. The average person is no match for a trained interrogator and in such a stressful circumstance a suspect might want to believe that the interrogator is on their side. But I assure you: no interrogator is ever on your side. They do not care about you or your future. Your only defense in a situation like this is to know your rights and implement them.
*Blue does not condone the use of the Reid Technique to incriminate your friends and loved ones. So all ya’ll narcissists, chill.
You have the right to remain silent. As the Reid technique suggests, a natural response when accused by anyone is to try to defend yourself. Saying nothing is strength. No one can use what you didn’t say against you, not even a trained senior detective.
In a traffic stop, you do not have to consent to a search of you or your vehicle. The police still may search your body if they suspect a weapon. They also may still search your vehicle, but if you express that you do not consent to a search before the search occurs, your rights are preserved in any subsequent legal battle.
If you are arrested, you have a right to a lawyer. If you cannot provide your own lawyer, you have the right to a government appointed lawyer. Again, you have the right to say nothing until you have received legal council.
You do not have to answer questions about where you were born, your citizenship, or how you arrived to the country. Even at international borders and in airports, you have the right to remain silent and the right to refuse a search. You must supply immigration papers if an immigration agent asks for them, but in a traffic stop, you only have to supply your license, registration, and proof of insurance. In all these situations, you still have the right to remain silent.
For a full list of your rights and recommendations for what to do if stopped by the police, visit https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/stopped-by-police/
More than 150 men and women were exonerated in 2018 according to a report published through the University of Michigan. Institutionalized racism only exacerbates the corruption with African-American prisoners being about 50% more likely to both be innocent and get longer sentences than any other prisoners. The American criminal justice system is severely flawed. Considering how many Americans are serving up to life sentences (and sometimes receiving the death penalty) for crimes they didn’t commit, there is no mystery as to why When They See Us has triggered so many feelings and calls to action. History is triggering when the same players are committing the same atrocities in the present.
Despite the attitude among many who think their station, income, appearance, or connections render them immune to a tragedy like that experienced by the Central Park Five, no one is completely safe as long as there is corruption in law enforcement. “That would never happen to me” is the kind of thinking that leaves people vulnerable. Inasmuch as it’s wise to have an emergency plan in case of fire, illness, or some other unforeseen disaster, it’s wise to have a plan for how to deal with law enforcement. Tell your kids. Tell your friends’ kids. Tell the lady at the post office. Tell the guy singing at the bus stop.
When They See Us is a reminder of the delicacy of our freedoms; a reminder that not much has changed, but that we can stay ready until it does.
To sign the petition to have Linda Fairstein’s books removed from circulation, visit https://www.change.org/p/amazon-all-other-book-retailers-linda-fairstein-central-park-five-book-removal
© Cathryn D. Blue, 2019. All Rights Reserved
Artwork Courtesy of Netflix