We Walked Away from Our Own Crime: 'The Central Park Five'

Like the best episodes of PBS's Frontline, The Central Park Five is a superior work of journalism that re-examines an important case that has, unfortunately, grown hazy in the memories of many.

The Central Park Five

Director: Sarah Burns, David McMahon, Ken Burns
Distributor: PBS
Length: approx. 120 min
Studio: Florentine Films/WETA Television
Year: 2012
Release date: 2013-04-13

In Stanley Kubrick's chilling, dystopian A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell and his cruel Droogs delight in attacking innocent citizens at random, including a hapless vagrant they encounter one night in a nearby park. I couldn't help but reflect on this as I watched the latest offering from Ken Burns (in collaboration with his daughter Sarah and her husband, documentarian David McMahon), The Central Park Five. Perhaps you recall the case?

On 19 April 1989, investment banker Trisha Meili was jogging through New York's often-maligned Central Park when she was set upon by an assailant (or assailants). Raped and beaten, she was left to fend for herself, until another jogger discovered her battered body during the wee hours of the morning. The detectives of Manhattan North were soon all over the case, and five youths were quickly implicated: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Meili was white. The five teens – all Harlem residents, pre-gentrification -- were of African-American or Puerto Rican heritage. The fuse was lit.

One has to understand the social tinderbox that existed in the Big Apple at the close of the go-go '80s, not to mention the gaping socioeconomic chasm between rich and poor. A string of racially-charged incidents involving black residents and New York's finest had stoked flames of fear and distrust – which were hardly new – and although the city had emerged from the bad old days of the '70s fiscal meltdown and infrastructural malaise, the immense wealth generated in finance and the real estate sector didn't necessarily trickle down to all, as our then-president suggested it might.

New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer, interviewed here, claims that New York was “a completely schizophrenic, divided city” and “a social moat” seemed to exist between the haves and have-nots. Cheap 'crack' cocaine flooded the 'hoods, ramping up violence and lawlessness, precipitating a more vigorous crack down from law enforcement. The Rev. Calvin Butts, long a strident voice in the city's political affairs, argues that “the black community was under assault”. And this was all before Mr. Giuliani occupied Gracie Mansion.

Nobody – including the boys themselves – denies that they were in the park that evening. They had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of – and witnesses to – criminal activity perpetrated by others; a band of thuggish youths harassed passerby and apparently beat a homeless individual, in an eerie evocation of McDowell's gang of miscreants in Clockwork Orange.

Although McCray was unacquainted with the other four, it wasn't long before all were collared, and in a now-predictable feeding frenzy, media hysteria resulted. We see the Donald, our inimitable Mr. Trump, no stranger to controversy, exhorting for the death penalty, even though the accused – labeled by many a “wolf pack” -- were still minors. Indeed, a new term was coined for the attack on Meili: “wilding”. A release of the attack's chronology to the press hardly helped matters. But most damning of all, the boys ultimately confessed to the heinous act. Case closed, yes?

Not exactly. Like most, I'm inclined to assume that any sane person who can be placed at or near the scene of a crime and then confesses must therefore be guilty. We know now, however, that certain individuals, under immense pressure from harried investigators, and gullible enough to believe they would be freed, will sometimes cave and admit guilt falsely. Though few would accept this at the time, that's clearly what happened to these boys who would later be called “The Central Park Five”.

McMahon and the Burnses demonstrate that a serious analysis of the confessions reveals numerous flaws, including inaccurate chronologies and mistakes regarding the victim's attire. Also, the ground evidence indicated that only one or two individuals could have left the trail where Meili was dragged from the pathway.

The true culprit, a vicious ne'er-do-well named Matias Reyes, is arrested that summer, but it's not until years later that his casual jailhouse confession alerts the powers-that-be to the possible innocence of the Central Park Five, who by this time, have been imprisoned for years. The boys later recanted, but a jury had already found all guilty, and the boys were refused plea deals. McCray's attorney, Michael Joseph, describes his client as “calm, timid, non-aggressive”, but that wasn't sufficient to sway juror opinion. During the trial, Juror #5, Ronald Gold, held some significant doubts, but caved under duress; like the accused, he was anxious to return home, to escape the pressure cooker of the trial.

Extras included are of adequate length, as so much is already told in the film. We hear brief commentaries from Sarah Burns and David McMahon, as well as Ken himself, his hair forever ebony. Kevin Richardson claims to have been “coached” by his interrogators, and a few clips from the film are repeated, as is often the case. I was surprised to learn that The Central Park Five used only five full-time crew members, but what do I know?

In “The Subpoena”, we're told that municipal prosecutors subpoenaed the filmmakers' notes, and that a 2003 civil lawsuit filed by the five defendants remains unresolved. In “A New York Wilding”, Burns himself reiterates that the New York of that era, and perhaps today, was “two cities”. He also reminds us that the exoneration of the men received only a smattering of the press coverage that their arrests and conviction did. Indeed, many people seemed unaware that they had been cleared, and he frequently encountered an attitude of, “Well, they must have done something”.

Lastly, in “After The Central Park Five”, the men discuss meeting Sarah Burns, and the process by which she gained their trust. Also, Raymond Santana mentions the tearful audiences at the Toronto Film Festival who embraced the story.

The genesis of The Central Park Five is a non-fiction book by Sarah Burns, which she thought would be a terrific basis for a film. And why not, with the one of the most celebrated documentarians in the world as your paterfamilias? Burns' name seems synonymous with top-shelf historical examinations, and I imagine he's swimming in Emmys, with perhaps an occasional Peabody floating by. The Civil War vaulted him onto the map, and he's been churning out dependable work ever since. In fact, his reputation is such that homages/satires? like In Smog and Thunder and Confederate States of America have popped up in theaters over the past decade.

Usually, Ken Burns chooses broader, more-encompassing subject matter, and of course his daughter was the primary force behind making The Central Park Five. For one thing, everyone associated with the case is still with us, so star-studded voice re-enactments are absent here. However, all NYPD personnel involved declined any participation in the project, to no one's surprise.

Like the best episodes of PBS's Frontline, The Central Park Five is a superior work of journalism that re-examines an unfortunate case that has grown hazy in the memory banks of many. Although narrower in scope than past work from Burns, I wouldn't mind if this project – and let's remember it was conceived by his daughter Sarah – hinted at more specialized topics they might collaborate on in the future.


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