Central Park Five

When Truth and Reality Collide: ‘The Central Park Five’ and ‘West of Memphis’

The Central Park Five and West of Memphis never lose sight of the fact that America’s legal system can go so terribly wrong in so many ways.

The Central Park Five
Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Sundance Selects
23 November 2012 (US)
West of Memphis
Amy Berg
Sony Pictures Classics
28 December 2012

“At that time, I was just getting into music, watching videos. MTV Raps was kind of big, so we would just record the videos and we would watch them over and over and over, all day,” remembers Raymond Santana. “You know, that’s how far my range was. I think that I was at that point of coming into who I was, you know, but I never really got there.” As he speaks, you see footage of turntables and a photo of young Raymond surrounded by friends in baseball caps, his face sweet and round. Now, 23 years later, he wears a mustache, and his hair is cropped close; he smiles faintly as he looks back, but it is clear too that his “range” has been altered irrevocably.

Santana was one of the kids arrested in 1989 for the assault on the Central Park Jogger. The case rocked New York then, and it remains haunting, as you’re reminded early in the documentary The Central Park Five by a series of shots – of trees. As the camera looks out on dark branches and deep blue sky, city lights visible beyond. Then a stretch of road leading to more trees and more lights, you hear an audio recording, a man asserting there was “no way these kids saw this woman,” and indeed, that “I’m the one that did this,” his words underscored as subtitles.

It’s a remarkable start for a remarkable film. Screening 15 November at DOC NYC The Central Park Five offers a sober, poignant, and utterly horrifying recollection of a legal case out of control, a case as “wild” as any fantastical charges made against the kids – all living in Harlem, black and Latino, between 14 and 16 years old when they were arrested – who went to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

Based on Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, the film – which she directed with her father, Ken Burns, and husband, David McMahon – 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, defendants, their relatives, and journalists.

“I look back on the jogger case,” says Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, “And wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist. You know, a lot of people didn’t do their jobs, reporters, police prosecutors, defense lawyers.” Cut from Dwyer to a black and white photo, demonstrators with placards (“She couldn’t run away, why should we?” and “There is nothing minor about it”) as grim-faced — white — authorities pass by a police barricade. The photo clarifies Dwyer’s point: “This was a proxy war being fought, and these young men were the proxies for all kinds of other agendas. And the truth and the reality and justice were not part of it.”

The Central Park Five argues that such absence of “the truth and the reality” was a less tragic accident than the logical result of a system immersed in fear and racism, as well as shoddy legal procedures and media hysteria. Even as the jogger – a 28-year-old white investment banker – lay in the hospital, unable to remember what had happened – people with the ability to shape what happened next assumed they knew. Ed Koch remembers the city’s near bankruptcy at the time, the rise of crack cocaine and violent crime rates, the sensational headlines, Governor Cuomo’s laments, and Donald Trump’s on-air bluster, all pressuring authorities to close the case to create an illusion of safe “streets” (or at least a safe Park). “People want to see if the system works,” he said back then, and the court cases appeared to be instances of same.

The Central Park Five exposes that even as doubts emerged – faulty confessions, the lack of forensic evidence, the contradictory eyewitness accounts – authorities pursued their ends. Seeing grainy black-and-white police interviews with the boys from 1989, you’re left cringing at their coercion. Your discomfort is amplified by interviews with the victims now, as they remember their own fear and naïvete, their guesses that the “truth” would come out and their lives would be restored. “I didn’t know about bail,” says Antron McCray. When he was released, “I thought the case was over, I stayed in the house played videogames and just studied.” Yusef Salaam (who never signed a confession but was convicted based on 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?”

The Central Park Five were duly sentenced (all as juveniles save for Kharey Wise, who was 16 and so deemed an adult), and problems in the case resounding and also repressed until 2001, when Matias Reyes, at the time serving a 33 1/3 years-to-life sentence in state prison, confessed to the crime and provided DNA that matched the semen found on the jogger in 1989. As Jim Dwyer puts it, “The truth of what had happened is almost unbearable. By prosecuting the wrong people for the Central Park jogger case, Matias Reyes continued to hurt, maim, and kill. And they could have had him, but they got stuck with a mistake, and they’re still invested in that mistake.”

These consequences constitute their own “truth”. And so does another legacy of the case. “I’m always behind those years that it took from me,” Santana says in The Central Park Five. “I don’t know how to regain that stuff anymore.” Such loss cannot be made right, which means that even as the documentary grants the wrongly convicted victims the chance to tell their stories (in interviews now and pictures from 1989 that accentuate “the stuff” 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. Just so, DOC NYC this year also offers West of Memphis. Amy Berg’s film tells the story of the West Memphis Three, a trio of white teenagers arrested and convicted in Arkansas in 1993, also for a crime they didn’t commit.

While much of their experience has been chronicled previously and at length by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, Berg’s documentary focuses on some other elements in the case, specifically, the work to free Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, not only by Berlinger and Sinofsky (some of their footage is credited here), but also by Echols’ wife Lorri Davis, who provides the new documentary with an effective emotional center.

Davis (she and Echols are producers on the new film, along with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) walks viewers through her experience, beginning with artifacts that include the 5000 letters and hundreds of books she and Echols exchanged over the 18 years he was in prison for murdering three second-graders, Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. (She began writing to Echols after she saw the first Paradise Lost in 1996 and felt an immediate connection: “To hear Damien talk in that film,” she says, “He sounded so much like myself.”) West of Memphis follows her changed life, her decision to move from New York to Little Rock, her efforts to raise money and awareness, her collaborations with celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, and the efforts of so many attorneys and investigators who took up the case once it became known, through the earlier documentaries, numerous news stories, and an energetic, sustained internet campaign.

Where the Paradise Lost trilogy pursued the case as it happened, Berg’s film revisits information since revealed or rejected and so reassembles the storyline. As West of Memphis recounts, the case involved more stifling of “the truth and the reality” that might once have emerged in Arkansas, as well as Misskelley’s coerced confession. The film rehearses the state’s resistance to consider new evidence or to acknowledge its original cases were flawed, a story of Davis’ heroic dedication, framed by contextual news footage and encouraging emails from Fran Walsh. And so, along with Davis, the film also features interviews with three key players from 1993, namely, Pam Hicks (formerly Pam Hobbs, the mother of Stevie Branch) and John Mark Byers (stepfather to Christopher). Byers is also featured prominently in the last Paradise Lost film, where he rejected and apologized for his previous assertions of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley’s guilt.

Here Byers reconfirms his suspicions concerning Terry Hobbs, Pam’s ex, and the film pursues them, including Hobbs’ frankly disturbing deposition from 2009 (when he sued Natalie Maines for defamation) and also a friend of Hobbs’ son, now grown up and describing what sound like damning statements by Terry. To its credit, West of Memphis is less concerned with doing the work that police should do or should have done than with showing the profound effects of the errors – whether inadvertent or purposeful – on Echols, Misskelley, Baldwin, and their families. As valiant as the correction efforts have been, and despite the release of these particular victims, West of Memphis, like The Central Park Five, never loses sight of the fact that legal systems can go so terribly wrong in so many ways.