I really didn’t know anything about the Central Park five or the infamous case until I first became aware of this documentary by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and David McMahon earlier this year. From that point, I knew that a female jogger, Trisha Meili, had been attacked and raped in Central Park in April 1989, and five teenage boys (who were either black or Latino) were wrongly tried and convicted of this heinous crime. Two months ago my friend Zac posted on his Yards of Grapevine blog about this film and how the case affected him growing up.
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I expressed recent shock when the Oscar shortlist was announced for the Best Documentary Oscar. With all the critical acclaim and awards the film was picking up, I thought that this film being one of the five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature would be a no-brainer. It ended up not even making the 15-film shortlist. I was pissed off about this, and I hadn’t even seen the film yet. Now that I’ve finally seen the film, I’m even more pissed off that it didn’t make the shortlist. The only solace I can take from this is the hope that the 15 documentaries on the shortlist are just as excellent, if not even better, than The Central Park Five (of the 15, I’ve seen Five Broken Cameras and Bully, which are thankfully just as excellent).
Also, now that I’ve finally seen the film, I have only disgust to aim at our criminal justice system. I’ve seen hundreds of episodes of Law and Order (all the various shows), and though I know they’re just TV shows, I’ve always hoped that there was a Jack McCoy-type of district attorney who fought for what was right. If New York ever had such a D.A. at any point in its history, it certainly didn’t have one at the end of the 1980s. I’m not sure who to be pissed at more: the detectives who coerced false confessions from the five, the D.A.s who knew the five were innocent but proceeded to try them anyway, or the NY media who vilified the five teenage boys for readership boosts and TV ratings.
The detective work was just sloppy. They rounded up several suspects because they were more interested in closing the case as soon as possible rather than finding the true culprit. They coerced five of those suspects (Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Kharey Wise) into giving false confessions; confessions that were largely contradictory and were only given because the boys were promised that they could go home afterwards. It was clear from the videotaped confessions that the five boys weren’t actually there when Meili was raped. To top that, there was no physical evidence that linked them to the crime. There were no blood matches and no semen matches. The semen found had belonged to an unknown assailant, Matias Reyes, who had actually committed several crimes in Central Park that year (including theft and rape). Then there’s the trail created by the dragging of Meili’s body, which clearly showed that there could have been only two people: the one doing the dragging and the one being dragged. What I find amazing is that the two D.A.s prosecuting the case, Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, actually proceeded with the case despite the lack of physical evidence (I’m sure that Jack McCoy would’ve never proceeded with this case). By the time the trials occurred over a year later, the public was against the five boys (thanks largely to the NY TV and newspaper media) and all the D.A.s had to present to the biased jury were the videotaped “confessions.” Only one juror held out in the deliberation period because he saw that the confessions were obviously false, but after ten days, he was forced to vote guilty because he, too, wanted to go home.
There is no doubt that this case is one of the biggest examples of injustice in the criminal justice system, and unfortunately there are thousands of more examples. The screening of the film I recently attended at the IFC Center was followed by a Q&A with Ken Burns, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Kevin Richardson. Ken Burns, when asked how the project started, stated that the project started with his daughter Sarah. She was working for a civil rights lawyer back in 2003 who just happened to be representing the Central Park five as they filed their lawsuit against the city. She ended up meeting two of the five men, and later wrote her senior essay about the case. She eventually earned the trust of all five men as she continued to do more research about the original case. Raymond and Kevin said that when they were first shown the film without credits added in, Kharey turned to them and said that the film was a credit to them. They also said that the welcomes they receive at Q&As leave them speechless. Burns mentioned that his company recently received a subpoena from the city to turn over all the footage and outtakes from the film. For more on that, please check out this video:
Burns also mentioned that Meili had declined to participate in the film. Part of it was because she hasn’t fully recovered mentally from the attack, and part of it was because the police and prosecutors had filled in the gap in her memory for her, leaving her with a false recollection of events for so many years (until the truth finally came out ten years ago). Burns said that he did notify her when the film would be opening in NYC just to give her a heads-up, and that she was grateful he had contacted her about it. When asked about his research methods, Burns said that his team is always researching (which is why his films take so long to make). Kevin stated that talking about what happened to them has been very therapeutic, and that what happened to them still happens to kids today. Yusef said that no one knows what the law is until you’re faced with it, and that simple law should be taught to elementary school students (“If you know the law, you won’t be confrontive to it”). He also said that there should be a mandatory law where if you’re below a certain age, then there should be a lawyer present with you always during any questioning. Raymond, Kevin, and Yusef said that they never received any apologies from the D.A.s. They mentioned that Fairstein writes fiction books now (which drew a ton of laughter), and that Lederer still works in the law. In a final statement Burns said that the D.A.s and the detectives revealed themselves by not participating in the film.
One last thing: Raymond said that the next court date for the hearing regarding their lawsuit against the city (which is still pending after nearly 10 years because the NYPD refuses to acknowledge that the detectives working the original case did anything wrong) is on Thursday January 17, 2013. It will be at 500 Pearl St., New York, NY on the 18th floor at 2:30 p.m. Please come out and give your support.
Here’s a video of Sarah with Raymond and Kharey: