It’s not hyperbole to say that Ken Burns has become America’s premier documentary film historical storyteller. But for all the myriad merits of his series on baseball, jazz, the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson and more, his newest movie, The Central Park Five (made with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon), may be to my mind his most moving and possibly important work.
There is a personal connection I must acknowledge here: The brutal rape and beating of a female jogger one night in April 1989 and the media hysteria over African-American and Hispanic teens “wilding” in the park occurred not long before I moved away from New York City after 14 years living there. Where his earlier films were in some fashion or other about how we Americans became who we are, this one focuses on who we – still, sadly – are: a nation embroiled within and plagued by racism. This has been starkly obvious since we elected a Black president.
Racial tensions were running high in the city at the time the crime occurred. The 28-year-old victim was an honors graduate of Yale and young professional who worked at an investment bank and lived on New York’s upper east side. The accused were economically disadvantaged youths from Harlem between the ages of 14 to 16.
As The Central Park Five disturbingly shows, the law enforcement and justice system failed abysmally in this case. Four of the accused were manipulated and coerced into false confessions by police. The prosecutor pursued the multiple charges against the teens with a zeal that was blind to the contradictions in their “confessions” and DNA evidence that indicated another perpetrator, plus no hard evidence that indicated that any of the five was responsible for the attack. Nonetheless they were all convicted and spent between seven and 13 years behind bars.
Some 13 years later, a convicted rapist who at the time was called the “East Side Rapist” and was being simultaneously sought confessed to the crime. Police had his DNA yet never made the connection.
The most striking and, in a sad and ironic way, most positive aspect of this miscarriage of justice is the wisdom displayed by all of the five wrongly convicted (now) young men in their on camera interviews. Though victims of the system, they don’t appear to have been poisoned by an anger that they could rightfully feel.
On the flip side, no one on the law and order side of the equation seems to have expressed regret at how in the near-citywide rush to judgment they made serious mistakes and, it seems like, skirted the law and procedure to find and try those to blame for the heinous crimes. Yes, it would make them further culpable in a $250 million civil suit against the City of New York filed by the five (still not settled after a dozen years). But if lessons can’t be learned by those within the system, such mistakes will happen again.
It was a perfect storm of racism, classism, fear, outrage, media overkill and police and prosecutorial oversights and possible misdeeds that caused this outrageous miscarriage. A similar fury and widespread demand to toss aside the safeguards within our justice system followed the recent Boston Marathon bombings.
The Central Park Five reminds us that justice is indeed blind sometimes as well as fraught with misplaced zeal, agendas, prejudices, incompetence and more that can lead to tragic results. In its taut and compelling look at this sad and sordid incident, it provides a powerful reminder how true justice takes care, fairness and empathy to avoid such gaffes with unalterable consequences for the innocent parties that can sometimes result.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2013
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