“A huge injustice was done.” With these words, New York City’s new mayor Bill DeBlasio has promised to “settle the Central Park Five case.” The case is notorious for all kinds of reasons, not least being the shoddy policing and lawyering that sent five teenagers to prison in 1990, bad practices incited by media hysteria that began the moment Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise were arrested for the rape and beating of the Central Park Jogger, Trisha Meili, on April 19, 1989. The case is revisited in the powerful documentary The Central Park Five, directed by Sarah and Ken Burns and based on her book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding.
The film screens on 30 January at Stranger Than Fiction, where it will be followed by a Q&A with two of the Central Park Five, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, who changed his first name after the sentences were vacated in 2002 and the young men were released. It provides background drawn from contemporary media images, including crime scene footage accompanied by a detective’s grisly description, as well as reflections by those involved, including lawyers, defendant, relatives, and journalists. Salaam (who never signed a confession, but was convicted on the basis of the others’ false confessions) says he thought his lawyer was “going to fight,” but instead, he was faced with a guilty verdict announced before e packed courtroom: “My whole insides dropped,” he says, “Like, this is crazy. Are you kidding me?”
At the same time, the film keeps focused on the victims’ present. Their loss cannot be made right, which means that even as The Central Park Five grants the five the chance to tell their stories, in interviews now and pictures from 1989 that accentuate what they’ve lost, the best possible end might be a broader consideration of how and why this and other cases, less publicized, go so wrong. Each occurrence bears its own set of circumstances, social factors, legal and media errors and malfeasance. Each also has its hope, embodied by these kids, once shocked and now men.
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