Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five tells the true story of five black and Latino teens wrongfully convicted for a 1989 crime in Central Park. Sarah Burns and David McMahon also direct. This film is based on Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five.
When a white female jogger was raped and assaulted on April 19, 1989, public uproar followed. New York City police and politicians faced intense pressure to catch and convict someone quickly. Interviews and archival footage recount the historic case.
Film helps us remember, forgive, heal
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were hanging out in Central Park with other teens that night. They were accused of “wilding” (roaming in a large crowd and attacking others). The film never clarifies whether the five Harlem teens – ages 14 to 17 – took part in “wilding.”
Interrogated without food or water for 14 to 30 hours, each suspect was threatened and not allowed to see his family. Not one of them asked for a lawyer.
Police promised them freedom if they would confess to the rape and assault. One by one, the boys confessed. Examined today, the written confessions appear to have been worded by police. Police and prosecutors declined to speak with the filmmakers.
Confessing under duress
I felt sick to my stomach hearing the angry, judgmental tone in journalist’s reports from those days. The teens recanted their stories as soon as they were appointed lawyers. It was too late to correct public perception.
The press and law enforcement officials did not question the facts of the case. Sensational headlines used racial code words like “wolf pack.” Even many Harlem residents believed the teens were guilty.
New York City was sharply divided along racial and socioeconomic lines at that time. “I want us to remember what happened that day and be horrified by ourselves,” says historian Craig Steven Wilder, head of MIT’s History section. “It really is a mirror on our society.”
Facts don’t add up
The investigation showed that the teens were not near the victim at the time of the assault. DNA evidence did not match any of the suspects. Forensic evidence showed that one attacker, not five, dragged the Central Park jogger into the woods that night.
“I wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist,” said Jim Dwyer of the New York Times. “A lot of people didn’t do their jobs – reporters, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers. . . . Truth and reality and justice were not part of it.”
One lone juror believed that the teens were innocent. He appears in the film, admitting that he finally gave in and voted with the others.
Could it happen today?
The convictions were overturned when the real rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. The Central Park Five were released in 2002 after prison terms ranging from six to 13 years. The jogger eventually recovered with no memory of the assault.
A $250 million federal civil rights lawsuit remains unresolved. New York City comptroller John Liu has urged the city to settle the case. New York City continues to state that police and prosecutors acted properly.
The Central Park Five reminds us that when we judge, we cannot truly see. It is a duty and a privilege to practice compassion, to treat others as we would be treated.
One question still haunts me: Could this happen today?
The Central Park Five: Take Action
Central Park Five 2012 / NR / 1 hour, 59 min
Cast Overview: Angela Black, Calvin O. Butts III, Natalie Byfield, David Dinkins, Jim Dwyer, Ronald Gold, LynNell Hancock, Michael Joseph, Saul Kassin, Ed Koch, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Sr., Raymond Santana, Michael Warren, Craig Steven Wilder, Korey Wise
Director: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Genre: Documentary, History