A new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is now playing in limited release. The Central Park Five chronicles the events of April 19, 1989, in New York when five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem (Raymond Santana, 14, Kevin Richardson, 14, Steve Lopez, 15, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Kharey Wise, 16) were arrested and later convicted of brutally beating and raping a 28-year-old white investment banker named Trisha Meili who survived the attack, suffering traumatic brain injuries and sinking into a coma for 12 days.
At the time, New York Mayor Ed Koch called it the “crime of the century,” and it remains to date one of the biggest media stories ever. The five accused spent between six and 13 years in prison before a shocking confession from a serial rapist and DNA evidence proved their innocence, winning their release in 2002. If authorities had paid closer attention, they would have arrested Matias Reyes for the Central Park crime, before he went on to cause more harm to women and their families.
Media outlets tried to “out headline” each other, and new terminology was born: “wilding” and “wolf packs”; Donald Trump spent $89,000 to run full-page ads in New York dailies calling for the death penalty to be reinstated; Pat Buchannan suggested that it would be good for the oldest boy (16) to be “tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park by June 1.”
The documentary, which was screened at the recent Chicago International Film Festival, is unsettling enough. Racism permeates the comments of the regular “man on the street” and also city officials. But to learn that the five accused were wrongly convicted will just turn a viewer’s stomach. The writing was on the wall: the youth were questioned and taped, without the benefit of attorney or their parents being in the room. The interrogations ran throughout the night and early morning after the jogger’s body was found. Four of the five confessed, under coercion, but all later recanted—to no avail.
The so-called “wilding” case saw overzealous police and prosecutors working feverishly to convict the five guys, who were in or near the park on that night. But none of them knew one another. These were just guys out on a summer night having fun, doing not much of anything. Although unknown to each other, each is questioned and each is fed the same story by the cops for more than 36 hours. One young boy’s mother is told that she should go home and get some sleep. Most were told if they would just corroborate what the police were telling them, then they would be on their way home. But that wasn’t the case. The Central Park Five contains archival footage, including the taped “confessions” of the boys, as well as them being led back and forth to trial and the demonstrations at the courthouse—either for their release or for hard sentences.
The Central Park Five examines race relations in a town that was already polarized, but it also really makes human the men accused of the horrible crime, after the media has characterized them as being savages. There is no way that any person with any kind of emotion or feelings can watch Central Park Five without becoming upset. Upset that not much was done to find the real suspects and much was done to lasso these five men into custody. I suppose on one hand you look at the authorities and see what they were up against—they had to find someone. But finding someone at the cost of denying others freedom is just wrong.
The film does not go into great detail about the pending 2003 federal lawsuit against New York City, in which the five men and their families are reportedly seeking $50 million each in damages – a case that reportedly may involve the filmmakers, whose raw footage and outtakes have been subpoenaed.
Sarah Burns had worked on the story while in college, and her father, Ken Burns, said that while they were emotional while creating the documentary, they stayed with the facts. After the CIFF screening, one of the men Raymond Santana fielded questions about his innocence and more particularly his life before and after the verdict and his conviction.
Even though the sentences were vacated, the documentary reveals that the five men still face obstacles in finding employment and most are distracted. Santana said that the “decks were stacked against me.” He had grown up in the system, which resulted in criminal activity. Even after he was vindicated for the Central Park case, Santana was later arrested for a drug charge—extra time was levied against him, he said, because of his prior felony conviction in the Central Park case. But he shares that he couldn’t find employment after his release from prison, “It’s all about awareness, and it is up to us to give one another second chances,” he told the audience.
Santana is currently advocating for changes in custodial interrogations. And while the five men and their attorneys wait for disposition of their lawsuit against the city; they say they haven’t received any apologies from the City of New York, and no one involved in their rapid, shameful convictions has been reprimanded.
A Houston prosecutor in the audience says she uses this as a teaching tool. “Raymond is a hero, and we have to be sure that what we are doing is just,” she said. Another audience member apologized for the city of New York, simply because he lived in New York at the time of the crime.
The Central Park Five is now playing in NY/LA and opens in more cities in December.