In 1989 the “Central Park Jogger” trial had the country’s attention and a media frenzy fed the heightened fear of New Yorkers who saw their beloved Central Park and the city as a whole becoming a dangerous environment simmering with crime and mayhem. “The Central Park Five”, a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, retells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of brutally raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park on April 22, 1989. The film chronicles The Central Park Jogger case from the perspective of the five teenagers whose youth was not only stolen from them as a result of a heinous miscarriage of justice but were also subjected to the brutality of adult prison.
Running through Central Park, harassing, assaulting, and robbing people was not uncommon in the 80’s and some of the five teenagers who were brought into the police station that night for questioning had, in fact, been bullying passersby or standing by and watching. The Central Park Five were said to be “wilding” that night, a term that newspapers coined for the savagery of the brutal attack.
Then the narrative becomes more and more heartbreaking at the same time it becomes more familiar with every turn. This is our generation’s Scottsboro Boys. These were 14-to-16 year old boys who had never been indicted for any crime. The police department filmed their confessions, allowing the viewer to experience how each suspect incriminated himself. Each teenager was interrogated individually for 14-30 hours, mostly without their parents and with no legal counsel present. “Central Park Five” leaves the viewer wondering how these five young people had no legal counsel when they were questioned. Told by law enforcement that, if they signed confessions, they would be able to go home afterwards–even then, they were reluctant until worn down by lack of food, sleep, or adult supporters. Police are not encumbered by the truth in order to get a confession. Could anyone, let alone a frightened 14-year-old, stand up to that sort of psychological manipulation? I don’t think so. These boys were not going home.
In 1990 there was a trial. Any open-minded detective or journalist could see that none of their stories matched up, even when fed the facts by aggressive interrogators but it was easier not to ask questions in order to get a story out to the public quickly. One juror noted how the videotaped confessions were inconsistent in reporting details, that none of the accused had the victim’s blood on his clothing, and there was no DNA evidence linking any of them to the crime scene. But the lone juror was pressured by other jury members to find the Central Park Five guilty so everyone could go home. So he did. (Think “12 Angry Men”.) The partially recovered victim of the rape appeared in court, although she had no memory of the attack or events leading up to the attack, to ensure that public attention would not wane. The coerced confessions were the only “evidence” used, as well as being the powerfully persuasive–seemingly irrefutable– tools crucial to obtaining long sentences and mandatory registration as sex offenders. The boys were sentenced to between six and thirteen years imprisonment for attempted murder, rape, and sexual assault.
In a dramatic upheaval of the case, the New York Supreme Court finally vacated all five convictions in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, accidentally met one of the youths serving his sentence for the crime Reyes had committed. Reyes confessed to committing the crime alone and DNA evidence confirmed he was the rapist. In 2002 the Central Park Five filed a civil lawsuit for reparations for wrongful conviction. The city of New York, however, has been stonewalling the case in order to protect the prosecutors and police, prompting Ken Burns to make this documentary.
“The Central Park Five”, a societal and cultural flashpoint for the times we live in, reminds us that we all must question our certitude when the media gives “facts” about crimes and their perpetrators, and we must entertain at least the possibility that the suspects were set up due to their race, class, lack of knowledge about their legal rights, and public outrage. What if the rape victim had been black and attacked in Harlem, one minister asks in the film. Like “Scottsboro Boys”, this documentary is a sober testament to the damage inflicted by a corrupt legal system, sloppy media coverage, and a court of public opinion. (Netflix plans to release the film on April 22 to commemorate the 24th anniversary of this horrendous miscarriage of justice.) There is no doubt that this could and will happen again.