The Central Park Five
Clarity of Message:7.5
Venerable filmmaker Ken Burns joined forces with family to unbury and re-create the infamous case of the Central Park Jogger. The documentary is based upon the book by Burns’ daughter Sarah entitled, “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding.” Her husband, David McMahon, also collaborated on the riveting film—a mind-blowing montage of newspaper headlines, actual news footage, courtroom sketches and interviews.
In 1989, four black teens and one Latino made forced confessions that would change their lives and the lives of their families forever. They were Kevin Richardson (14 years old); Antron McCray (15 years old); Yusef Salaam (15 years old); Kharey Wise (16 years old); and Raymond Santana (15 years old). Although all of them didn’t know one another, their lives quickly became tangled as the Central Park Five (CP5).
The juveniles were accused, tried, convicted and sentenced in the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a young, white, Ivy League investment broker on Wall Street. Most of the media respectfully and intentionally concealed her identity for years until she officially confirmed it in 2003 when she published her memoirs about the case; the media blasted the identity of all the boys from Day One.
I have worked on many local and national cases of wrongful convictions of individuals and groups. Even with that experience, it was painful to watch as Burns stitched together the elements of the story, particularly seeing a scrawny, clueless Kharey Wise being manipulated by police and knowing his overall situation. Wise was sent to the notorious Rikers Island prison where he survived in protective custody for most of his incarceration. (watch now: click here..)
I vividly recall when the Central Park case first hit the news. My instincts told me the were probably innocent and I said so. I was quickly accused of always taking the side of … (fill in the blank–blacks, kids, etc.). My longtime work around violence against women was no factor.
All five young men were exonerated when the real rapist confessed in 2002. By then, they had already lost 7 to 13 years of their lives. Matias Reyes’s DNA was a match in the jogger case. The serial rapist and murderer was on the loose while police and prosecutors zealously pursued five innocent kids with no criminal records.
The documentary sets the backdrop of the incident by looking at the socio-political landscape in the Big Apple. The prior decade was filled with racial divisions, crime, AIDS, the crack epidemic and police repression.
All the elements of a perfect storm for wrongful convictions were there and the film masterfully lays them out:
– Black and brown youth from working class families are easy targets especially if they aren’t “system savvy” and don’t have the resources for effective legal representation. Plus the mainstream media had sufficiently criminalized them as a class.
– Police beatings or other interrogation techniques designed to wear down and confuse must be used. The CP5 were interrogated for hours before they made their forced confessions but the entire proceedings were not videotaped–only their confessions–which were used against them in trial.
– In a high profile case such as the CP5 where the public is basically calling for blood, inadequate legal representation only adds to the injustice de jour. Attorneys for the boys had varying levels of competency. Salaam saw his attorney sleeping during trial and Santana said his attorney believed they were all guilty.
– A hostile and racist media had a field day with the CP5. Demonizing headlines that called the boys a “wolf pack” or “wilding teens” were designed to sensationalize for the goal of increasing newspaper sales and ratings. Voices of authority were used to ramp up emotions. Then Mayor Ed Koch proclaimed it as “the crime of the century” and Donald Trump took out full page ads in four prominent New York newspapers calling for the re-instatement of the death penalty (despite the fact that no one was murdered in this incident).
– When a case is on the line, a rogue prosecutor is needed to bring home the victory. Such legal deviance was found in lead prosecutors Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein. Even when the prosecution found out before the trials that there was no DNA match obtained from the rape victim, they made a decision to forge ahead anyway.
– A caring and objective jury is usually the last hope for wrongfully accused person. All of the false confessions of the CP5 were in conflict with one another even when it came down to important details of the crime. There was no evidence linking them to the crime and no eye witnesses; the victim was beaten so severely that she has no memories of that night in April, 1989. Juror Harold Brueland appears in the documentary and initially pointed out these contradictions during jury deliberations but eventually caved in saying, ”I just went along with it at the end because frankly I was wiped out.”
The filmmakers spread plenty blame around in their exposé–police, prosecutors, media, etc. They also point to the complicity of our community in the fate of the boys. This is the saddest part for me as I expect the media and the prison industrial complex to to their respective jobs. Too many times, we have turned our children over to a system that has nothing good in store for them.
The drama for the CP5 and the filmmakers apparently is still unfolding. Attorneys for the exonerated men filed a $250 million civil suit against the New York City and its co-conspirators. Police and prosecutors admit no wrongdoing in the case and maintain the guilt of the CP5. The city is aggressively fighting the suit that could help the men and their families move forward. Earlier this year, the city subpoenaed the production company for access to the original footage not used in the documentary. This travesty of justice must not be allowed to continue.
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Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon Writers: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
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