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When You’ve Seen ‘When They See Us,’ Here’s What to Read


When You’ve Seen ‘When They See Us,’ Here’s What to Read

Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix series “When They See Us,” about the 1989 case in which five teenagers, collectively known as the Central Park Five, were wrongfully convicted of a violent rape, has cast new light on the crime, the investigation and its aftermath. These six books illuminate what happened as well as the contentious issues at play, including racial biases, wrongful imprisonment and prosecutorial power.


This 1991 essay, originally published in the New York Review of Books, is Didion’s meditation on the Central Park jogger case. Didion was ahead of her time in her skeptical consideration of the crime and in her discussion of the racial politics involved. “Sentimental Journeys” was included in “After Henry,” an essay collection in which she “captured the mood of America in these days of sullen tension and strife,” wrote our reviewer.

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE: A Chronicle of a City Wilding by Sarah Burns

This 2011 book was the first to reconsider the Central Park Five case after the men were exonerated and the authorities learned that the serial rapist Matias Reyes was responsible for the crime. Our reviewer said this simple fact made it “unquestionably worth reading,” and adds that in this, Burns’s first book, she “proves herself an energetic researcher and gatherer, as well as a writer with a fine sense of organization and pacing.”

GHOST OF THE INNOCENT MAN: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin

At 41, Willie Grimes was wrongfully imprisoned for breaking into a 69-year-old woman’s home and raping her. It would take 25 years for him to prove his innocence, and in this book, Rachlin recounts this process. “He attempts to address the very human questions that most of us have: When serving time for a crime you didn’t commit, how do you not become consumed by anger and bitterness? How do you maintain your equilibrium?” our reviewer wrote. “As Rachlin recounts Grimes’s incarceration over the years and decades, we witness the slow-motion crushing of his spirit.”


Roy and Celestial, the young black couple at the center of this story, seem to be thriving. Then Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. This novel, mostly told in letters between the two during and after Roy’s imprisonment, navigates “complicated emotional territory,” our reviewer wrote, with “succinctness and precision, making what isn’t said as haunting as the letters themselves.”

CHARGED: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration by Emily Bazelon

In this “persuasive indictment of prosecutorial excess,” according to our reviewer, Bazelon argues that prosecutors and the evolution of their office into a steppingstone for higher office, “bear much of the responsibility for over-incarceration, conviction of the innocent and other serious problems of the criminal justice system.”

PICKING COTTON: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo

After Jennifer Thompson was raped at gunpoint in her 20s, she identified Ronald Cotton in a lineup as the man who had committed the crime. He was imprisoned for 11 years, released after a DNA test proved his innocence. Improbably, he and his accuser became friends. In this 2009 book, the two write about their experiences and why law enforcement should be more skeptical of eyewitness testimony.

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