Directed by: Ken Burns & Sarah Burns & David McMahon.
Written by: Ken Burns & Sarah Burns & David McMahon.
In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested, tried and convicted of attacking and raping a white woman who was jogging through Central Park. The case garnered national attention, and certainly was horrifying to everyone in New York City – a city that was already deeply divided along racial lines (remember, this was the same year Spike Lee directed his masterpiece – Do the Right Thing). The media had a field day with the attack – describing the teens as a “wolf pack” and popularizing the term “wilding” – to describe such attacks by these large groups of non-white teenagers. This is a case that everyone heard about – even me, who was only 8 at the time.
How many people remember however that The Central Park Five were eventually exonerated? After spending anywhere between 6 and 13 years in prison, new evidence came to light. A man named Matias Reyes, who was arrested not long after the Central Park Five, and was convicted of being the East Side Rapist, responsible for many similar attacks. He eventually confessed to the crime – saying he committed it alone – and whose DNA was linked to the crime.
So, if they didn’t do the crime, and if they had no DNA evidence to convict them, than how did these five men get convicted in the first place? Simple – they confessed. But as we are seeing more and more often in the American Justice system, confessions are not always accurate. In this case, you have five teenagers – between 14 and 16 – who were questioned for hours on end, without a lawyer present, who eventually just gave in and confessed – although none took responsibility themselves, they all pointed the finger at the others, perhaps thinking that this way they could go home. Despite the fact that the confessions do not match each other, and have some glaring factual flaws in them, and despite the fact that now reasonable timeline could be established to make the prosecutions timeline fit, and despite the fact that even before trial, the DA knew the DNA evidence did not match any of the defendants, they pushed forward with the case – and got convictions.
The documentary The Central Park Five has been directed by Ken Burns, best known for his PBS documentaries, along with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon. The movie is clearly not impartial – few documentaries truly are – and the filmmakers are clearly on the side of the five men – Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Anton McCray – all of which are interviewed (although one does not want his face shown). Perhaps this closed with these men can account for the film’s single biggest flaw – the fact that the filmmakers never really question the five on what they were really doing at the time of the attack. It’s pretty much undeniable that they are innocent of what they were charged and convicted for – but by their own admission, they were in Central Park that night as part of a large group of teenagers – perhaps up to 30 – and participated in other crimes that night. So while The Central Park Five were innocent of what they were charged with, they aren’t really completely innocent, are they? A more complex documentary would address this issue.
Yet, perhaps the movie doesn’t need to address it. After all, they weren’t charged with anything other than the attack and rape of the jogger – a crime which they are clearly innocent of. They served years behind bars for something they didn’t do – something that should not happen to anyone, despite what else they may be guilty of. What the movie does do is lay out a step by step process of how the cops and the DA got confessions and then convictions out of the suspects, and how the media ate up everything up they were fed, without ever questioning what really happened. The city was horrified by what happened, and in a race to sell papers, the different New York City papers piled on, seeing who could be the most outraged by the crime.
The Central Park Five joins the ranks of documentaries like the Paradise Lost trilogy and West of Memphis – all about the West Memphis Three, convicted of the murder of three young boys because of a confession by one of them. It makes you question the justice system – a system that seems more interested in getting results than getting correct results. This was a high profile case the police needed to close – and close it they did, even if they should have known they didn’t have the right people.