In 1989, a brutal assault and rape of a woman jogging at night in Central Park filled the headlines of the local newspapers and the people of the New York City demanded justice. Five teenage boys were arrested for the heinous crime that hospitalized the victim and, asfter extensive interrogations, confessed to the crime. But, there were questions and doubts as to how the police and the prosecutors got those confessions from “The Central Park Five.”
Sarah Burns, her dad Ken Burns and husband David McMahon explore another miscarriage of justice story (preceded, recently, by “West of Memphis” about the legal plights and imprisonment of the West Memphis Three). This one follows the heinous rape and beating of jogger Trisha Meili in Central Park on 19 April 1989. Left unconscious, nearly naked and hypothermic in an isolated part of the park, she was rushed to the hospital near death (she later, remarkably, recovered). The police began to round up anyone that might, however remotely, be involved in the crime. Five teens between the ages of 14 and 17 – Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise – were arrested and accused of the rape and assault.
The crime, one of the 3254 rapes reported in New York City that year, provoked public outrage and a demand that justice be done. The police accommodated this demand and selected their suspects from the gangs of youths wandering the streets of the city “wilding.” Five of these suspects, mentioned above, were interrogated by the police and each coerced into confessing to the crime and implicating the others.
The filmmakers, in their investigation into the crime and its aftermath, found that “truth, reality and justice” were not part of the case for the police and the prosecutors. They also show the “Timeline of Terror” of the crime, as put forth by the police, and refute it, exonerating those convicted. The topper in this whole tragic story is Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist who, in 2002, confessed to the crime (and proven by DNA testing) and the Central Park Five were vacated (the previous judgment is voided) and released from prison.
First time filmmaker Sarah Burns has learned a lot from her dad and his collaborator McMahon. The team builds a solid story from the time of the crime through the release from prison those wrongly accused and railroaded into confessing to a crime they did not commit. Many wrongs and questionable police investigation and interrogation techniques are brought to light. The cops and prosecutors involved, tellingly, refused to be interviewed for the film. “The Central Park Five” is a solid entry in this year’s list of documentary films about injustice. I give it a B+.
In 1989, New York City was a very different place than it is now. The NYPD was being held up for criticism for multiple incidents involving violence against minorities while white vigilante Bernard Goetz was gunning down people in the subway. There was a huge divide between the 'me decade' haves and people living at the poverty level. Crime and graffiti were the norm, but Central Park was supposed to be exempt from all this. One night in April, 28 year-old investment banker Trisha Meili was jogging at night and was raped and beaten so brutally no one could identify her except for a bracelet she always wore. Coincidentally, five black kids from the ages of fourteen to sixteen happened to be being held at the same district's precinct, something Manhattan detectives found fit their case like a glove and so these kids were convicted, becoming known as "The Central Park Five."
Cowriter/directors Ken Burns ('The Civil War') and his 'Baseball' producer/cowriter David McMahon have stepped back from their usual mini-series format to adapt Burns's daughter Sarah's book "The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding" into a theatrical feature length documentary, but they only appear to tell a part of the story. This case, much like the West Memphis Three's with lesser sentences but added racial and socioeconomic divides, was not only a horrible miscarriage of justice, but a brutal crime by a serial rapist involving a victim whose life would never be the same. It's also a snapshot of New York City before its tourist-friendly revamp, yet one the filmmakers paint with Central Park sacrosanct, something they contradict with their own subjects' testimonies.
Interviews with the five (Kevin Richardson, Yusef Sallam, Raymond Santana and Korey West appear then and now, whereas we only hear Antron McCray's voice even though his younger self is seen in old photos) lay down their backgrounds as good young men with no criminal records, close relationships with a dad here, baseball champ there. The five didn't all know each other, but had the bad luck to each note a mob of about twenty-five kids entering Central Park and followed to witness (horrified per their accounts) the beatings of random homeless people. Their accounts are almost a little too squeaky clean. When the cops arrived they ran and were caught. And after up to 36 hours of police interrogation after the jogger was found a few hours later, each and every one of them confessed, most with parents present. No one asked for a lawyer, even after being apprised of their rights. They were all given the impression they'd be going home if they told the story that was being asked for. Then they were tried in both the courtroom and the media.
The case most resembles what we've seen in the "Paradise Lost" series and the upcoming "West of Memphis" in that the media grabbed onto a sensationalistic headline grabber - in the Arkansas case, satanic ritual, in this one, 'wilding,' a purported activity where urban kids randomly and violently attacked for sport - and that the police jammed convenient suspects into the facts of their case like square pegs into round holes using coerced confessions as their only evidence to appease the community. Even though the kids all recanted their confessions and a reconstructed timeline after the jogger's was added placed them at another part of the park, the jury fell into the prosecutors' step (we do here from one juror who fought the rest before throwing in the towel).
Also like the West Memphis Three, the five were tried in two separate trials. While most went to serve sentences in a juvenile center, the eldest, Korey, gets sent to Ryker's island. Years and years later he happens to meet the man who actually committed the crime and that man raises the flag. DNA evidence supports his claim. (Korey's behavior and speech suggest an IQ lower than his age, but again, this is not commented upon here.) One of the group, who had served his time, been released, then put back into jail for dealing drugs (his only recourse, he states) is rereleased when the striking of the earlier crime remakes him as a first offender, a pretty interesting development and remarkable in how public opinion once again swayed case developments, this time in the opposite direction.
We do see a shocking photo of the victim, unrecognizable as a human being, but we do not hear from her nor all that much about her. The filmmakers would have us believe that despite their documentation of a crime ridden New York, Central Park, even at night, was considered safe. That's not how I remember it.
The film is comprised of the usual talking heads, archival footage and photographs. Burns, who is known for the sepia tinted stills and handwritten letters of "The Civil War," here relies on and reminds us of the lost art of courtroom drawing, which here is extraordinarily expressive. The film is well balanced visually, well paced and successful at voicing its outrage (the NYPD refused to comment). But "The Central Park Five" leaves questions unanswered and serves as a piece of shameful history without reflection upon how past mistakes have or could affect the future serving of justice.
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