Ken Burns Documentary Highlights Racially Motivated Arrests Of Central Park Five

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    (NEW YORK) MintPress – Even those who did not live in New York City on April 19, 1989 heard the  terrifying story of 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili — most of the news media didn’t identify her at the time  — who was brutally assaulted and raped while jogging in Central Park that night.

    Five male teenagers — four black and one Hispanic — were tried and convicted for the crime. But there are still very few people aware of the fact that the convictions were overturned in 2002 after another man confessed to having committed the crime alone.

    As historian Craig Steven Wilder noted, “Their innocence never got the attention that their guilt did.”

    Filmmakers Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns are hoping to change that with their new documentary, “The Central Park Five,” out in New York City now and On Demand Dec. 7.

    In the film, the trio argues that the convictions, and the years the defendants served for the crime they were later absolved of, were a second, racially motivated crime.

    At the time of their arrest, one of the suspects’ supporters, Reverend Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, told the New York Times, “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round up a bunch of black youths, and I think that’s what happened here.”

    In her New York Times review of “The Central Park Five,” film critic Manohla Dargis writes: “The five teenagers were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were also the wrong color and the right suspects; the jogger was the perfect color and the right victims. The teenagers might have been up to ‘mischief,’ as one of the movie’s interviewees blandly puts it, but they were effectively sacrificed on the altar of public opinion.”


    Coerced confessions

    As Ms. Burns writes in her 2011 book “The Central Park Five,” the five teenagers had been in the park on the night of the Meili attack with a gang of about 30 kids who went after eight people, some violently.

    Each of the five said that he hadn’t participated in the rampage, but after they were arrested for attacking Meili, most confessed to assaulting her.

    According to the film, the confessions were made after 14 to 30 hours of intimidation and interrogations, all without lawyers present.

    The police turned the five against each other, making up accusations and evidence, and got five confessions. But each of them described what the others did while maintaining that they didn’t do anything themselves. There were other inconsistencies in the confessions as well. Timelines, locations and weapons varied greatly from story to story.

    In addition, there was no physical evidence. Analysis indicated that the DNA collected at the crime scene did not match any of the suspects — and that the crime scene DNA had all come from a single unknown person.

    The men recanted almost immediately, but all five were convicted in two trials, based largely on their confessions.

    Thirteen years later, a prison inmate named Matias Reyes, who was in jail for unrelated crimes, admitted to attacking Meili. He said he zigzagged behind her, knocked her down with a tree branch, raped her and beat her with a rock when she tried to escape. Subsequent DNA testing proved his guilt.


    Belated exoneration

    As a result, the five men —  Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam — who had already served sentences of almost 7 to 13 years for the assault, sought to have their convictions overturned.

    The Manhattan District Attorney at the time, Robert M. Morgenthau, reopened the investigation into the attack and on Dec. 5, 2002, responded to their motion.

    “A comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies. … The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime — who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place,” he wrote.

    “In many other respects the defendants’ statements were not corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence. And some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact.”

    Morgenthau recommended that the convictions be vacated in light of the “extraordinary circumstances” of the case.

    On Dec. 19, 2002, New York State Supreme Court Judge Charles J. Tejada overturned the convictions of all five men, and their records were wiped clean.

    At the time, journalist Sydney Schanberg wrote, “Every now and again, we get a look, usually no more than a glimpse, at how the justice system really works. What we see before the sanitizing curtain is drawn abruptly down is a process full of human fallibility and error, sometimes noble, more often unfair, rarely evil but frequently unequal, and through it all inevitably influenced by issues of race and class and economic status.

    “In short, it’s a lot like other big, unwieldy institutions,” he continued. “Such a moment of clear sight emerges from the mess we know as the case of the Central Park Jogger.”


    Seeking justice

    In 2003, the men filed a federal lawsuit against New York City as well as the prosecutors and police who aided in their conviction for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress.

    So far, the suits have not been resolved. “We believe that based on the information that the police and prosecutors had at the time, they had probable cause to proceed, and the confessions were sound,” said Celeste Koeleveld, the city’s executive assistant corporation counsel for public safety.

    Koeleveld claimed that the men must show misconduct by law enforcement officials and not simply that the outcomes were incorrect in order to prevail in their claims that the confessions were coerced.

    In September, city lawyers subpoenaed notes and outtakes from “The Central Park Five,” which includes in-depth interviews with the five men.

    According to Mr. Burns, the subpoena came after the city had spent years rebuffing requests for interviews that he believed would help explain the actions taken by law enforcement officials involved in the convictions.

    “There is a great deal of disappointment that it came to this, given the fact that we had given so many of the factions in this complicated story many, many opportunities, on a regular basis, to comment,” he said.

    “It’s the fourth quarter and they’re trying to run out the clock. These young men are now all in their late 30s, and it’s been more than 20 years,” Burns added. “In the larger moral sense, this is 13 years of tragedy, compounded by a decade of limbo.”

    Burns hopes “The Central Park Five” raises public awareness of what he sees as an ongoing injustice.

    “Almost all of our projects have forced us to grapple with questions of race,” he said.” You don’t go looking for it, but it turns out to be the No. 1 subtext in the American experience.”

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