PBS film delivers justice for the Central Park Five
In 1989, a terrible crime was committed a young woman was brutally beaten and raped in what became known as the Central Park Jogger case.
In 1990, a terrible injustice occurred five innocent teenage boys were convicted of the crime.
In 1989, the New York papers were filled with lurid, racially-charged headlines about how a "wolfpack" of "wilding" teens had roamed Central Park and raped the woman.
In 2002, after the five young men had served prison terms, they were exonerated by the same district attorney who had prosecuted them. Their confessions had been coerced; there was no physical evidence. The real rapist confessed. And it barely registered in the New York press.
That incensed author/filmmaker Sarah Burns, who came upon the case the year after the men were cleared.
"I was totally unaware of this case when it happened," said Burns, who was six at the time. "And now it has consumed pretty much my entire professional, adult life."
Her father, filmmaker Ken Burns ("The Civil War," "Prohibition," "Dust Bowl"), said his daughter "has followed it doggedly for almost 10 years, her outrage infecting the rest of us. Her incredible work habits and humanity permitting the Central Park Five who had, up to that point, not been treated like human beings to actually be willing to open up and tell their story for the first time to another human being."
Sarah Burns turned the story of the Central Park Five into a college thesis. Then a book. And then, with her husband, David McMahon, and her father, into the shocking film "The Central Park Five." It airs this week on KUED-Channel 7.
It's not shocking because it's sensationalized. It's actually a straightforward recounting of events. It's shocking because it's so hard to believe. It's like something out of the 19th century South, but this was 1989 Manhattan.
Based on those coerced confessions, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam were arrested, charged and convicted. The press portrayed them as monsters; they were 14-, 15- and 16-year-old boys one of them developmentally disabled who (with one minor exception) had never been in trouble before.
They were five of more than 20 boys rounded up by police that night, and their naivete proved to be their undoing.
"The guys who confessed were the vulnerable ones," McMahon said. "They thought they were cooperating and helping the police get other guys they didn't know."
What they didn't realize was that they were about to be portrayed as monsters. Donald Trump bought full-page ads calling them "savages" and demanding they be put to death. Pat Buchanan wrote that 16-year-old Wise should be "tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park." Politicians and columnists of all political stripes would rail against them.
But they were innocent.
There have been few apologies since the three were exonerated. And none from Trump or Buchanan.
"At the heart of this are five human beings who were turned into animals, brutes, beasts," Ken Burns said, using "all the language of Jim Crow America at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, not the language of a progressive American city at the end of the 20th century."
The Central Park Five were, not surprisingly, suspicious of the press.
"Within the first two weeks [after their arrest], 400 articles were written about us dissecting our lives," said Santana. "And to come back now and we were exonerated and not receive that much press, we didn't really understand the dynamics and why that happened."
But they "developed a relationship" with Sarah Burns and agreed to be interviewed for her book and, later, for the film in part because she was the only one asking.
"Nobody else asked to write a book," Santana said. "Here was this woman who stepped out. She did the research, she became so outraged. And this is what we wanted the whole time was just for the facts to be told as straight and the truth to be heard."
(The victim, Trisha Meili, has no memory of the attack. She wrote her own book about her recovery, "I Am the Central Park Jogger.")
There's even more to be angry about. The police were so intent on convicting the innocent teens that they ignored the real rapist, Matias Reyes, who confessed in 2002 and was linked to the crime by DNA evidence. Had they gone after him in April 1989, he wouldn't have been free to rape and murder a pregnant woman shortly thereafter.
And, while the New York district attorney sided with the Central Park Five to exonerate them, the police have never admitted they did anything wrong none were disciplined. It's mind boggling, but Elizabeth Lederer, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the Central Park Five, still lists the case as one of her career highlights in her biography at Columbia Law School, where she's a lecturer.
"There's no sense that they learned anything from this that they are making changes from this," Sarah Burns said. "No one has faced any repercussions."
That's also true for members of the media, who brought shame upon themselves and their profession.
And the city, which pays about $1 billion a year in various settlements, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the Five's civil suit for more than a decade.
"So it is 13 years of justice denied and then 10 years of justice delayed," Ken Burns said, "which is also justice denied."
As far as the five young men are concerned, the film has been their way of seeing justice.
"Back in 1989, we was 14, 15, 16 years old and our voices were stolen from us," Santana said. "This was the perfect opportunity for us to finally put our voices out there and for you the viewer to connect with us on a whole different level and for you to see us as human beings."
It has been cathartic. Four of the five have traveled to film screenings and answered audience questions afterward, which is "part of our healing process," according to Santana.
"After each one of these screenings, there are people upset and people crying and they want to come up and they just want to talk to us and they want to apologize," he said.
"The experience of watching them engage an audience after the film has been the best part of this," McMahon said. "They routinely get standing ovations. They're so generous and graceful and wise about all this. They say, 'We're educating people about how to avoid this type of situation.'"
And that, according to Sarah Burns, is what makes "Central Park Five" a universal story that applies as much in Salt Lake City as it does in New York City.
"There's a lot that we can learn from it about racism and how it plays out in the modern context, but also about the problems with the justice system, "she said. "And I think it's something everyone should be concerned about."
"And everyone can fall prey to the false confession scenario," McMahon said. "And we hope this makes everyone aware of their rights, especially juveniles."
"The Central Park Five"
The film airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7. It repeats Friday at 11 p.m.; Sunday at 1 a.m.; and Monday at 1 a.m.
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