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Korey Wise's Story in 'When They See Us' Hit Viewers Especially Hard

Heather Finn
Photo credit: Netflix

From Good Housekeeping

  • Korey Wise is the oldest of the so-called "Central Park Five."
  • As seen in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us , Korey was tried and sentenced as an adult in the Central Park Jogger case.
  • Jharrel Jerome, the actor who played Korey in When They See Us , is now nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie .

Every last part of watching Netflix miniseries When They See Us is devastating. The series, which was created and directed by Emmy-nominated Ava Duvernay ( Selma , 13th ), follows the true story of the Central Park Five : five black and Latino teens — Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson — who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the brutal assault and rape of a 28-year-old female jogger in Central Park.

As viewers have watched the four-episode series, however, one character's story has struck them as especially heartbreaking — and that's the story of Korey Wise .

An unexpected interrogation

When police began collecting suspects in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case, Korey Wise's friend, 15-year-old Yusef Salaam, was brought in for questioning. In a show of support, Korey decided to accompany him . This turned out to be a grave mistake, however, as the police ended up pulling him into the interrogation room as well.

At 16, Korey was the oldest of the boys who would eventually become known as the "Central Park Five." And because of his age, he was legally allowed to be questioned by detectives without the supervision of a parent or guardian. Combine this with the fact that Korey struggled with hearing issues and a learning disability , and the teen was especially vulnerable to the pressures of the detectives' allegedly aggressive questioning.

By the end of his interrogation, Korey had given both a written and a videotaped confession . The details in his statements didn't match the details of the actual crime, and Korey would later say that the police, led by head of the Manhattan D.A.'s sex crimes unit Linda Fairstein , coerced him into submitting a false confession.

Serving time in adult prisons

Despite the lack of solid evidence , all five boys were ultimately found guilty of various charges of rape and assault in the Central Park Jogger case. But unlike the other four teens, who were tried as minors and sentenced to five to 10 years in a youth correctional facility (where they could be held until they turned 21), Korey was sentenced to five to 15 years — all of which were to be spent in an adult prison.

Photo credit: Netflix

The teenager was initially sent to Rikers Island , the infamous New York City jail. And as is shown in the fourth and final episode of When They See Us , it was a rough time for him: Just a kid thrust into a group of adult criminals, Korey was subject to great violence and abuse during his time there and in other federal prisons. He also spent several long periods of his incarceration locked away in solitary confinement.

"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,'" When They See Us director Ava 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."

Eventually, Korey met murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes in prison, and Matias confessed to be to being the actual, lone perpetrator of the Central Park Jogger rape. A DNA test (along with Matias's knowledge of the details of the crime) confirmed his guilt , and in 2002, Korey was released from prison. By that time, he had served 12 years .

Looking for justice after wrongful incarceration

After Korey was released from prison and then-District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau vacated all of the Central Park Five's charges , three of the men — Antron, Kevin, and Raymond — filed a lawsuit against the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. It took more than a decade and the election of a new mayor (Bill de Blasio), but New York finally finally settled the lawsuit for $41 million. And as the man who had wrongfully served the most time in prison, Korey received the largest portion of the settlement: $12.2 million.

At the end of the day, however, Korey still served more than a decade in prison as an innocent man, and he knows that those are years that the settlement won't give him back: "You can forgive, but you won't forget," he says in Sarah and Ken Burns' 2012 documentary, The Central Park Five . "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."

Where Korey Wise is today

Photo credit: Getty Images

Today, Korey still lives in New York City, where he works as a public speaker and criminal justice activist . In 2015, he donated $190,000 to the University of Colorado's chapter of the Innocence Project, which then changed its name to the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law in his honor.

To this day, Korey's friend Yusef says he still feels "pain" for unintentionally bringing Korey into the Central Park Jogger case — and the release of Netflix's When They See Us only amplifies that feeling.

"We had all gone through hell. But when I saw this series, I immediately realized that we were in paradise compared to the hell that Korey was in," Yusef recently said in an interview with The New York Times . "I went to jail and I was able to get a college degree. He never got an opportunity to breathe."

Despite all that Korey has been through, however, the now-46-year-old keeps a surprisingly positive attitude — something that Jharrel Jerome , the actor who plays Korey in When They See Us , noticed immediately upon meeting him.

"I was terrified to meet him just because this is the man I'm going to portray, and I don't know how to speak to somebody who's lived a life like that because I've never met anyone like that," Jharrel, who is nominated for an Emmy for his role, told Newsweek in a May interview. "The second I met him, he took his chain off and put it around my neck, and he said, 'You're Korey Wise now.' That put everything into perspective for me about the kind of man he is. It's all strength, it's all power. He's all bright."

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