Ken Burns unveils latest film about Central Park violence

Last modified: Saturday, February 02, 2013

AMHERST — It was crime that shocked New York City and made national headlines in 1989: A young white professional woman, out for an evening run, was attacked and raped in Central Park, beaten unconscious and left for dead.

In the uproar that followed, prosecutors soon zeroed in on five black and Latino teenagers who had supposedly been out on a “wilding” spree in Central Park that night. With the media and the public screaming for justice, the five youths, despite lingering questions about their guilt, were convicted in 1990 and sentenced to between 6 and 13 years in jail.

The news coverage wasn’t nearly as intense in 2002 when a jailed serial rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the horrific assault; after DNA evidence corroborated Reyes’ story, the convictions of the five now-young men were vacated.

Now acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, working with his daughter Sarah has re-examined the story with his latest documentary, “The Central Park Five,” shining a spotlight on New York at a time when the city was beset with violence — there were more than 2,200 homicides in 1989 — and rising racial tensions and fears.

Burns was at Hampshire College Thursday to screen and answer questions about the new film, which the New York Times calls a “painful, angry, scrupulously reported story of race, injustice and media frenzy.” Speaking at Franklin Patterson Hall, the filmmaker told the standing room only crowd at his alma mater that the documentary, like much of his work, was inevitably about the legacy of slavery and the lingering problem of race in America — what he called “our original sin.”

“I don’t believe the police set out to pin this on black suspects,” Burns said. “But the language of the media around this case was very racist, and at some point I think the thinking about these five teens became, ‘Well, they’re just black.’ ”

“The Central Park Five” is based on a book of the same title authored by Sarah Burns last year. The younger Burns had first learned of the case in 2003, between her junior and senior years at Yale University. She was interning at the time with a New York civil rights law firm, Moore & Goodman, that represented the five former defendants in a still-unresolved lawsuit against the city, police and prosecutors.

Burns ended up writing her senior thesis on the representation of race in the media in the Central Park case and, after graduating from Yale in 2004, returned to Moore & Goodman to work as a paralegal and researcher for a few more years. Increasingly incensed by the story of innocent teens jailed, she decided to write a book about it.

Her father said Thursday that when he and his daughter’s husband, filmmaker David McMahon, read some of the initial draft of the book a few years ago, “We realized instantly that this was a film and that we shared her outrage. ... This is not an enjoyable film.”

He added, “We had two basic questions we wanted to ask: How could this have happened, and who are these people who ended up in jail?”

The documentary, co-directed by McMahon, uses old film and photo footage from the case, including videotape of some of the police interrogations the youths. There are also extensive contemporary interviews with four of the men, now in their late 30s — Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. The fifth man, Antron McCray, does not appear in the film, although his voice is recorded.

“The Central Park Five” lays bare the details of a case that, from the beginning, seemed full of question marks. No physical evidence linking the five teens to the bloody crime scene was ever found, nor were there any eyewitnesses. The jogger, Tricia Meili, then a 28-year-old investment banker, eventually recovered from most of her injuries but was never able to recall details of the attack.

On that April 1989 evening, the five teens, all between the ages of 14 and 16, had for some period been part of a larger group of youths in Central Park, some of whom threw rocks at cars and assaulted a pedestrian; in the film, the former defendants say they took no part in those incidents and split up, anxious to get home, when police came onto the scene.

Richardson and Santana were arrested and questioned about the incidents and appeared about to be released when police learned of the attack on the jogger. Later the other three teens were also arrested; police interrogated all of them for hours. Exhausted, confused, and with no lawyers present — none had ever been arrested before — the teens were induced to confess to the crime, though their statements conflicted with the facts of the attack and with each other.

As the documentary outlines, the story played out in a city in turmoil over rampant crime, and in which vast new wealth flowing from Wall Street contrasted with a crack epidemic and grim poverty elsewhere, particularly minority neighborhoods. Tabloid headlines screamed about rampaging “wolf packs” of youths; Donald Trump took out full-page ads in the city’s four daily newspapers to demand that the teens face the death penalty.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch also inflamed the issue, calling the assault on Meili the “crime of the century.” Interviewed in the documentary, Koch, who died Friday, sounds almost gleeful as he recalls the feeling he and many New Yorkers had when police announced they were charging the suspects: “We got ’em! We got ’em!”

In this emotionally charged atmosphere, in which Meili’s condition and eventual recovery were closely tracked by the media, the five teens never had much of a chance, the film suggests. Police and prosecutors “wanted to make a statement” with the teens’ case — and despite their conflicting confessions, the lack of physical evidence and some jurors’ questions about police statements and procedures, all were eventually convicted.

As New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer says in the film, the Central Park Five “became proxies for all kinds of other agendas.”

Apology in order

In a question-and-answer session after the film, Burns noted that New York prosecutors and police refused all his requests for interviews, and that city officials have now demanded outtakes from the documentary as evidence in the civil suit the five former defendants filed against the city.

Burns said he also contacted Meili, who turned down his requests for an interview.

Burns believes the city would do well to settle with the five men and, above all, apologize. “This is a story of justice denied, and now justice delayed.” He said it was “not unreasonable” for police to question the teens about the attack on Meili, but that law enforcement officials in the end seemed unwilling, or unable, to look at other possibilities when serious doubts arose about the teens’ culpability.

Apologizing now is a complicated issue, he acknowledged, because people who made their names on the case, like lead prosecutors Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, have a lot to lose in acknowledging any mistakes.

But, he added, the larger issue is that five innocent men spent several years behind bars, forever altering the trajectory of their lives. As Richardson says in the film, “I never really got to finish growing up and be a kid, to go to the prom ... I had to grow up fast.”


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