"It's something we need to remember and not let be drift off into the annals of history where it's something that we don't really contribute to the person who's now running our country," director Ava DuVernay told PEOPLE

By Sam Gillette
May 31, 2019 02:27 PM

It was 1989 and Donald Trump“not widely known outside New York,” where he was a real estate developer and Art of the Deal author — had something he wanted to say.

“You better believe that I hate the people who took this girl and raped her brutally. You better believe it,” Trump, then some three decades from becoming president, reportedly told a packed room of people at a news conference in the wake of a notorious assault on a white woman jogging in Central Park.

A group of teenage boys, black and Hispanic, had quickly been detained in the investigation, which generated intense media attention.

“It’s more than anger,” Trump said at the time. “It’s hatred, and I want society to hate ‘em.”

Soon after the attack, in late April 1989, Trump took out a full-page ad in local newspapers in implicit reaction to the case, arguing that “muggers and murderers” should receive the death penalty if their victims die.

RELATED: Everything to Know About the Central Park 5 Case Featured in Netflix Miniseries

His histrionic remarks continued for decades — long after the boys who became known as the “Central Park Five” were exonerated and awarded millions following their wrongful imprisonment.

Trump “contributed at the time to an air of inevitability of their guilt, which [was] catastrophic for the lives of these five men and their families,” Ava DuVernay told PEOPLE recently.

The Selma director adapted the case into a five-part scripted series for Netflix, When They See Us, which premiered Friday.

“When you put one person behind bars falsely, the person’s family, that person’s community, anyone who has ever touched that person [or] ever knew that person now has a little less faith in the criminal justice system,” DuVernay told PEOPLE.

“It’s indicative of everything that was to come” with Trump’s behavior as a politician, she said.

Here is a look back at his role and his insistence on the boys’ guilt, even in the face of their proven innocence. A White House spokesman did not comment on Trump’s connection the case.

President Donald Trump in 1989
Jeffrey Asher/ Getty
A scene from When They See Us
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

One of the most notorious criminal cases in N.Y.C.’s history began in April 1989, after a young investment banker went for a run in Central Park and was raped and brutally beaten.

Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Kharey Wise (all between the ages of 14 and 16) were soon arrested and subsequently detained for hours by police. They would later testify that they were under duress when they falsely confessed to being responsible. The woman never remembered the details of her assault.

(A sixth teen, then 15, was also arrested but not prosecuted, according to the New York Times. He pleaded guilty to robbing another runner in the park that night.)

The ad Trump placed in local newspapers appeared before the teens stood for trial.

He did not name the suspects but his suggestion was clear. “At what point did we cross the line from the fine and noble pursuit of genuine civil liberties to the reckless and dangerously permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman and then laugh at her family’s anguish?” he wrote.

“Muggers and murderers,” according to Trump, “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”

RELATED: The Central Park 5 — Where Are They Now?

In that ad was an echo of the politically divisive but successful rhetoric Trump would campaign on in 2016, when he dismissed the need for decorum and described America as a nation wracked by the “carnage” of lawlessness and weakened authority.

In a 2015 interview with the Times, Trump acknowledged offending people. But he said he felt it was necessary to get his message across.

“It would be nice to be somewhat gentler,” he said, “but at the same time, I don’t think I would be able to make the point nearly as well, whether it’s the death penalty or other things, totally unrelated.”

“It’s very time-consuming to be politically correct,” he added, “and I don’t like wasting a lot of time.”

Director DuVernay, who re-told the boys’ story for Netflix, told PEOPLE that Trump’s behavior was “unconscionable.”

“The statements that he made and the ads that he took out, he took out two weeks after they were arrested, before their trial, calling for the deaths of the minors,” she said.

“It’s something we need to remember and not let be drift off into the annals of history where it’s something that we don’t really contribute to the person who’s now running our country,” she said.

Though they escaped the death penalty, all five of the boys were sent to prison after being convicted of various charges in the attack. Their freedom came years later when Matias Reyes confessed in 2002 to the rape, and his culpability was confirmed by DNA evidence.

Eventually the exonerated five, now all adults, won a settlement from NY.C. for about $40 million, per the Times.

But proof of the Central Park Five’s wrongful conviction, and the city’s settlement, did not convince Trump.

From left: Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr., Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Following the announcement of the 2014 settlement, Trump wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News in which he called the decision a “disgrace.”

“Settling doesn’t mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels,” he wrote.

“Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts,” he continued. “These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”

That June, he tweeted, “I’d bet the lawyers for the Central Park 5 are laughing at the stupidity of N.Y.C. when there was such a strong case against their ‘clients.’ “

In October 2016, on the verge of being elected president, he reiterated his opinion.

“[The Central Park Five] admitted they were guilty,” Trump said in a statement to CNN. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”

16-year-old Yusef Salaam (left)
Getty

No one better understands the cost of Trump’s continued attacks than the “Central Park Five” themselves.

In October 2016, Yusef Salaam, now a motivational speaker, wrote an essay for the Washington Post headlined “I’m one of the Central Park Five. Donald Trump won’t leave me alone.”

“In some ways, I feel like I’m on trial all over again. I know what it is to be a young black man without a voice — like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, who were killed and then crucified in the press,” Salaam wrote. “Even though the Central Park Five were found innocent by a court of law, we are still guilty in the eyes of many. That brings a certain kind of stress.”

He continued: “Black people across America know that because of the color of our skin, we are guilty before proven innocent. As a result, sometimes we lose the best years of our lives. Sometimes we lose our actual lives. We must not let this man ascend to the highest office in the land — a man who has proved that he lets neither facts nor humanity lead his steps.”

• With reporting by ADAM CARLSON and MARY GREEN

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