By Sara Smith
---- — ‘THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE’
9 p.m. EDT Tuesday
No video cameras captured the “wolf pack” of teenagers that swept through Central Park beating and harassing New Yorkers on April 19, 1989.
But cameras were on later at the precinct where police were booking the youths they’d picked up for unlawful assembly. The black-and-white NYPD images from that night show scared black and Hispanic teenagers waiting for their parents to show up and take them home.
Then a 28-year-old white jogger was found raped and near death in the park, setting in motion one of the most spectacular failures of American justice in recent memory.
“The Central Park Five,” documentarian Ken Burns’ collaboration with his daughter and son-in-law, takes us back to the ugly racial reality of New York City in the late ’80s, the days of crack and “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, when no one felt safe.
Craig Steven Wilder, an African-American historian, describes his reaction to hearing the news about the jogger: “Oh please, don’t let it be us.”
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise ended up going to trial because they were the most naive among the kids rounded up that night and the next morning. They were the ones whose parents didn’t push back, who didn’t know that cops have carte blanche to lie during interrogations. (Never talk to the police without a lawyer. Just never.)
Eventually, they made a series of statements that never matched up with reality — or their co-defendants’ versions of the story. Detectives told them they would be witnesses and promised them that they could go home.
“He just fed it to me. ‘What did he do? What did Antron McCray do?’” recalls Santana, who was 14 at the time. “He gave me the names, I put ’em in. I couldn’t tell you who they were, who they looked like. If he would’ve gave me a hundred names, I would have put a hundred people at the crime scene.”
Around this time, politicians began chiming in, with then-Gov. Mario Cuomo declaring, “This is the ultimate shriek of alarm.” Mayor Ed Koch scornfully dismissed the word “alleged” as he mocked the teenagers’ families.
Nearly lost in the fear-mongering coverage of the city’s newspapers, beneath a headline that read “Koch Calls Them Monsters” was one small sidebar: “Suspect’s Tales Don’t Match Up.”
The film lays out the compelling case for the five teenagers’ innocence, which seems clear in hindsight but was so poorly presented at trial that it couldn’t overcome the weight of the confessions. One defense lawyer napped.
“A lot of people didn’t do their jobs,” Jim Dwyer of the New York Times observes, a massive understatement.
When police and prosecutors realized they had found the DNA of only one still-unknown attacker, they never checked it against Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who’d been stalking the Upper East Side near the park when he was arrested that August. It would have matched.
Instead, the teens watched the rape survivor testify in court, wishing she could remember what had happened to her. They were all convicted, with sentences ranging from five to 15 years.
Ronald Gold, a juror in the trial of the first three teens, remembers holding out for as long as he could during more than 10 days of deliberations. In the end, though, he gave in to escape the pressure, just as the defendants had. “I just went along with it,” Gold says. “Just to get out of there.”
But the Central Park Five had learned not to do that anymore, and they all refused to capitulate in parole hearings for early release. Wise, who got the longest sentence, was the only one still behind bars in 2001 when he ran across Reyes in prison. The Upper East Side Rapist had a crisis of conscience and confessed, tossing out details 13 years later that only the assailant could have known.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau threw out the Central Park Five’s convictions in 2002. Amazingly, prosecutors still insist they had the right guys. “I think that Reyes ran with that pack of kids,” said Linda Fairstein, who made her career with the case. “He stayed longer when the others moved on. He completed the assault.”
Whatever cocktail of denial, cynical butt-covering and stubbornness is keeping New York City from settling the men’s civil lawsuit is a strong one. After refusing to cooperate with Burns, who made the film with his daughter, Sarah, and her husband, the city’s attorneys subpoenaed their unreleased footage based on the argument that the movie “crossed from documentary into pure advocacy.”
The city lost that argument, but there’s no doubt “The Central Park Five” is a movie with a mission, in the same vein as this year’s “West of Memphis,” Amy Berg’s powerful effort that helped to free three men, one from death row. The West Memphis Three were just a different verse in the same song: a heinous crime, a populace on edge, a desperate police force wringing a false confession from a teenager.
Coming soon: Oscar nominee Al Reinert’s “An Unreal Dream,” which was screened at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, last month, tells the story of Michael Morton, freed by DNA evidence in 2011 after almost 25 years in jail amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
These cases are so egregious that they’re easy to get behind, which is the problem. All three documentaries are pushing for further resolution, but their subjects are seeking closure, not freedom. With Berg, Burns and others resurrecting the tradition of “The Thin Blue Line,” other filmmakers should pick up the phone and call the Innocence Project.
Police still feel pressure to make arrests. Healthy skepticism rarely follows a heavy sigh of relief.
If documentaries are going to openly fight for social change, it’s time for a wave of films about the wrongfully convicted in this country whose stories have not already appeared in The New York Times.