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Film

The Central Park Five

New Burns’ documentary looks at the wrongful conviction of five teens

Photo: Christine Cornell, License: N/A

Christine Cornell

The Central Park Jogger case outraged a crack-war-torn, racially divided New York City in 1989.


The Central Park Five

Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon

Playing Jan. 16 at 7 P.M. at MICA’s the Brown Center with special guests Sarah Burns, David McMahon, and Raymond Santana, one of the five

Five innocent teenage boys, four black and one Hispanic, confessed to the brutal rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park in April 1989. The confessions—more or less foisted on the teens by police eager to resolve the high-profile case—were videotaped and used to convict the five, who spent the rest of their adolescence in prison. All but one had been released by the time a serial rapist, caught just months after the jogger’s attack, copped to the crime in 2002. Sarah Burns, daughter of documentarian Ken Burns, became familiar with the five’s story as a college student; in 2011 she published a book about the case. Now, Burns, her father, and her husband, David McMahon, dissect the grim narrative in The Central Park Five, a doc that can make you sick to the stomach over hastily committed injustices.

City Paper: The film really emphasizes the importance of the five’s videotape confessions. What was it like to watch those tapes all the way through?

Sarah Burns: You can see when you first look at them what a powerful piece of evidence they were. I mean, they’re hugely problematic; when you look at them carefully, you begin to see all these problems—the inconsistencies, the inaccuracies. I think when you just look at them, they’re really convincing. It’s a really interesting thing to know the whole story and to look at them as . . . evidence of what happened before and what these kids were feeling and thinking, and to understand that they were scared kids and not monsters.

CP: What was your directorial approach to that footage?

David McMahon: Well, we knew going into this process that the five were innocent because in 2002 the city reinvestigated after a confession from Matias Reyes, and so the question we were asking was, “How did this happen?,” not “Who did this?” The only sort of evidence that anybody had during the trial, because of the [lack] of forensic evidence, were these confessions. And so we thought of [the tapes] as the centerpiece of the whole thing. But the important thing here was that the confessions are the product of 15 to 30 hours of intense interrogations. We also had to figure out or sort of learn how it was that they could come to confess to this crime that they didn’t commit and didn’t witness. And we didn’t have any documentary evidence of what went on in those interrogation rooms. . . We had to unpack what the power dynamic was in that room, the technique that these detectives would use, and how vulnerable these five were to giving false confessions. So the trick ended up being how to set up the confessions by making people understand what went on in those interrogation rooms before those video statements were given.

CP: The film says there was a number of other teens who were brought in for questioning about the Central Park jogger. Do you know how many?

SB: There were approximately 30 kids in the park; I think the police at some point talked to most of them. I don’t think they all necessarily went through that type of interrogation experience, but certainly some of the others did, and the reason that they weren’t charged with the rape was because they didn’t make any confession of the rape or they didn’t mention it or their parents interrupted or they asked for a lawyer. In some ways, I think the five became the five because they were most vulnerable to these confessions and the most naive about the system.

CP: The film comments on the difference in public reaction to when the crime actually happened, in ’89, and when the wrongful conviction came to light, in 2002. Can you explain why that was?

DM: I think that it was such a sensational story in 1989. We were in the midst of the tabloid wars, the papers were trying to use the most sensational headlines that they could. It’s the end of the 1980s, a decade where homicide’s rising continually—I think [the homicide rate] peaked around ’89 or ’90 at over 2,000 a year. And there’s a lot of racial tension. There’s also that element of fear: “People are going to come down on the other side of the city and they’re going to pick my pocket or mug me.” In 2002, it’s a different story. At least cosmetically, the city has been cleaned up by Rudy Giuliani, there are more cops on the street, money has flowed back into the city, and it’s a different time. It’s also just not as compelling as a story; I don’t think newspapers thought, We’re going to sell papers for a whole week by talking about the innocence of these five black teenagers from a story that we got wrong in 1989. So I think it’s also about not wanting to be accountable for or responsible for not bringing the kind of journalistic skepticism in 1989 that the reporters should have had.

CP: On Matias Reyes—it struck me as odd that no one would make the connection between the fact that there was a serial rapist loose at the time and the rape of the Central Park jogger.

DM: [chuckles] You’re not kidding.

SB: Yeah, there was so much evidence available to them even at the time that could have helped them connect Reyes to this crime. It’s really just the fact that they didn’t want to see it, I think. Reyes had raped a woman in Central Park two days earlier. One of the detectives on that case had gone so far as discovering his name in connection to that attack, in the same area of the park. And that was never followed up on, and he goes on to rape many other women that summer before he’s eventually caught—by civilians, not even the police—and they test his DNA and use DNA testing in those other crimes. Ultimately, he pleads guilty just before trial, but they had that DNA sample and they had, certainly, the evidence that the five were not responsible given these problems with their statements or the lack of DNA evidence or other forensics in their case. It really feels like they could have caught him and they could have prevented Reyes’ other crimes.

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