26 years ago, 5 Black and Latino kids were wrongfully convicted of one of the most infamous crimes committed in New York City – the Central Park Jogger rape case. It took 13 years for the case to be overturned forever changing the lives of Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. Ken Burns the filmmaker behind The Civil War and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson created a documentary that detailed the harrowing journey for these 5 young teenagers through a faulty justice system.
In the late 1980s New York City, called the capital of racial violence, was a city divided. Wealthy vs. Poor. White vs. Brown. Then enter the crack epidemic and the city was ready to explode.
On April 19, 1989 there were a series of assaults in Central Park, most notably a white woman out for a jog who was raped and assaulted. That same night, a group of young Black and Latino men walked through the park committing crimes like assault, robbery, and disorderly conduct. The police who were able to detain some of the members of the group kept them in custody after hearing of the assault of the young woman in the park.
The kids, most 14 at the time of the arrest (one was 16) were scared, fatigued, and in unfamiliar surroundings. They were interrogated by themselves, sometimes double-teamed. Often they were questioned without parents and never with the assistance of an attorney. After hours of proclaiming their innocence they were all convinced (short of one) to confess to crimes that they did not commit by being told that one of the other kids blamed them in their confession. They were fed information from the crime scene and then were told that they had to place themselves at the crime scene to make the statement believable. None of the confessions matched the others. Each child named one or more of the other defendants.
The story became a national headline. They were described as monsters and called members of a wolf pack. The media built their stories off of hysteria and outrage. Words were used to terrify people. Their guilt was never questioned. The jogger eventually recovered, but was never able to remember the attack and so the police were allowed to create the narrative.
The suspects were convicted based off of the taped confessions. There was no other evidence. The chronology given by the police never made sense in conjunction with the jogger’s timeline. Not one of the suspects could describe the jogger, nor knew where, when, and how the crime took place. No DNA from any of the five was ever found, which was improbable based on the injuries to the victim and the trail that led to the jogger’s location could only be done by one person. Four of young men were sentenced to 5-to-10 years in prison beginning in a juvenile facility, while the fifth one, Korey Wise, was sent to Riker’s Island prison at the age of 16 and sentenced to 5-to-15 years.
They never make mention of anything other than the positive things they were able to achieve while incarcerated like earning college degrees and learning trades. However, it is obvious that they experienced unimaginable horrors and those are left to the imagination of the viewer. In total they each served between 7 and 13 years and were only exonerated after a confession from Matias Reyes.
At the time of the conviction of the Central Park Five, Matias Reyes, the East Side rapist, was arrested. He was convicted of raping 3 women and the rape/murder of another woman. He was known for giving the victim the choice of eyesight or death after committing his assaults.
After confessing to the rape of the Central Park Jogger, the reexamination of the case revealed that his DNA was a match, and he was able to give specific details on the case. The crime itself was very similar to previous crimes he’d committed.
After hearing about the developments, the Manhattan DA moved to set aside the verdicts of the Central Park Five and in December of 2002 the cases against the defendants were dismissed in their entirety. Recently, the men won a lawsuit against the city of New York for $41 million.
Documentaries by Ken Burns are top notch. The filmmaker doesn’t just use words to describe his story. He also uses photographs, video footage, family members, and newspaper headlines to detail the environment. Music was used to define the times and the pain endured: from Eric B and Rakim’s ‘My Melody’ to Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’. In contrast to the police, the prosecution and the media, Burns used this documentary to show the humanity of the Central Park Five.
This film is hard to watch. The filmmaker took extra precautions to respect the men in this documentary, but it is heartbreaking nonetheless. Despite that, I highly recommend this movie. It is a must-watch for anyone interested in our justice system. In the end, the Central Park Five prevailed, but at a terrible cost. Their lives were stolen. No amount of money could ever replace the years that were taken from them. They went into jail as babies and came out as grown men.