Korey Wise told students that lasting criminal justice reform is still far from a reality as he shared his story at WMU on Friday afternoon.
Wise spoke in the Bernhard Center ballroom on Sept. 27. One of the Central Park Five, Wise’s story was dramatized in the limited series “When They See Us,” which received two Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Actor for Jharrel Jerome’s portrayal of Wise. Wise’s appearance at WMU marked his first public appearance since the Emmys.
In 1989, Wise and the other members of the Five were falsely convicted following the rape of Trisha Meili. No DNA evidence could connect the Five to the attack, but the prosecution managed to convict on various assault charges. Wise was originally not a suspect, but was brought into the investigation after he accompanied his friend to the police station.
“I was just a kid who loved his boy,” Wise said.
Wise and the others were eventually exonerated when Matias Reyes, a convict who Wise met during his time in prison, confessed to being the real perpetrator. DNA evidence confirmed Reyes confession. Since his release Wise has been an advocate for criminal justice reform, sharing his experiences.
“To be free is a state of mind, but to be free is also not a state of mind,” Wise said, describing how the current criminal justice system deprives people of their dignity. “You need to be free of parole, you need to be able to come and go as you damn well please.”
Wise said that before his exoneration he had planned to max out his prison sentence to avoid parole. Parole, he said, is just another form of imprisonment.
“You’re still the property of the state. You have a curfew, you could be 50 years old and still have a curfew,” he said.
Wise said that despite increased media coverage, he feels that no real progress has been made in regards to criminal justice reform. In someways, he said, things are getting worse.
“It’s the Twilight Zone...[Police] now are more like robots. And when they’re afraid they get itchy trigger fingers. RIP Eric Garner,” he said.
Wise also discussed President Trump. During the trial of the Five, Trump took out a full page ad in the Daily News calling the New York to “bring back the death penalty.” Despite the DNA evidence and their exoneration, Trump continues to argue for their guilt. Wise encouraged people to vote with the goal of “getting him out of office.”
“Vote wise,” he said, inciting a wave of laughter.
Wise continued with a discussion of some of the things that have kept him going over the years. During his imprisonment, Wise saw time in solitary confinement. During that time the only thing he had was his will to live.
“I wanted to stay alive. I don’t know why I wanted to stay alive, but I guess that’s the only great thing you can do,” he said. He added that his time in solitary provided a sense of safety that was hard to find amongst the general population.
After his exoneration, Wise took comfort in his family and in music. Immediately following his release Wise lived with some family from upstate New York. While staying with them, he worked through his emotions.
“They were like therapists,” he said.
Wise also cited music as one of his biggest releases.
“Hip-hop is empowerment. Hip hop is self improvement,” he said. “Even in my home I just try listening to hip-hop and being hip-hop to keep a smile on my face.”
Wise concluded by answering a question regarding his portrayal in “When They See Us.” Describing what it was like to see himself portrayed on film, Wise said:
“[It is] very hard. I don’t see it everyday. Most weeks I don’t see it at all, but when I do see it I don’t process it.”
After the event Taylor West, WSA vice president and one of the event’s organizers, said that bringing Wise to WMU is one of the most exciting moments of her time as a student.
“It was so emotional,” she said. “Seeing how many people actually showed up, listening to him, it was amazing.”