New York Mayor Ed Koch didn’t shrink from calling it “the crime of the century.” A TV newscaster talked angrily about evildoers who “blazed a nighttime trail of terror” that culminated in the horrific beating and savage rape of a Central Park jogger on the night of April 19, 1989. The event became an all-consuming national sensation, but, as it turns out, everything everyone thought they knew was wrong.
This is the devastating premise of “The Central Park Five,” a careful, thoughtful documentary that meticulously re-creates what happened on that night and details how and why everything went so terribly off-course. Co-directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, it projects equal parts fury and despair as it reveals how a particular group of individuals was caught in the unforgiving gears of the criminal justice system.
Five black and Latino teenagers, ages 14 to 16, admitted to the rape and beating (though they almost immediately recanted) of the white jogger and served prison sentences ranging from six to 13 years. But, out of nowhere, compelling new evidence, including a startling 2002 confession by a convicted murderer and rapist whose DNA was present at the crime scene, led a judge to overturn their convictions.
Yet it is one of the case’s painful ironies that to this day it is the arrest and not the ultimate exoneration that is remembered.
“I wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist,” says regretful New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, one of the film’s key voices. “A lot of people didn’t do their jobs: reporters, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys. ... Truth, reality and justice were not part of it.”
“The Central Park Five” also serves as a cinematic primer on what has become one of the most disturbing aspects of our criminal justice system: the ability — and the unabashed willingness — of police to psychologically manipulate people into confessing to things they have not done.