The Central Park Five
by George Sax
The Central Park Five
Odds are, most people will at least vaguely recall the word “wilding,” but it’s about as probable that most won’t remember or have never known its origins. A new, tensely effective documentary movie about a once-notorious crime, The Central Park Five, reminds us of those origins, and of a deeply disturbing miscarriage of justice that followed that crime.
On the night of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman—her race became significant in many minds—who went jogging in New York’s Central Park was set upon, savagely beaten, and sexually assaulted. Tricia Meili, discovered amid park shrubbery off a path, arrived at a hospital grievously injured and comatose. As it happened, at about the same time she was entering the park from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a ragtag mob of 25-30 mostly African-American adolescents were beginning a rampage of terror and violence along the park’s trails and byways, wilding, as the news people almost immediately began calling it, a term borrowed from these young terrorists and their peers. In a rapidly deployed police roundup of some of these kids as they exited the park, two of those arrested were teenagers Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson. They probably faced charges of unlawful assembly and might have been released to their parents except that a suspicious detective from Manhattan North precinct made a probably arbitrary connection and they were held for questioning about the attack on the jogger. Within a day, they were joined by three others: Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. The five, ages 14-16, knew each other barely, if at all. (The movie is ambiguous about whether any of them played any part in the wilding crimes that night; all of them deny that.) And within 24 hours, they were charged with rape and the assault on the now-comatose woman.
The movie makes the case that how this happened had less to do with legal requirements and careful inquiry than contemporary social dynamics and symbolism. Produced and directed by the internationally known documentarist Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, this case seems sounder than the one pressed by the New York police and Manhattan Ditrict Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Yet, the authorities’ case stuck, tragically enough.
The Central Park Five grimly and expertly depicts a virtually perfect sociological and political storm impelling the charges and the convictions of these five. The frightening upsurge in New York crime, the crack epidemic, the rise in racial and class tensions, and aggressive rightist political efforts came together to condemn these kids. “These young men became proxies for all kinds of agendas,” New York Times reporter-columnist Jim Dwyer tells us. Among his culprits are journalists eager to jump on and help steer this railroad. Prominent New York lawyer Michael Warren says that if this woman had been attacked in one of the city’s “darker” neighborhoods, all this would probably not have occurred. The filmmakers quickly introduce the setup and story, often using montages of imagery and TV news excerpts, including one of New York’s voluble and inflammatory mayor, Ed Koch, in a streetside interview, telling a reporter how he dislikes applying “alleged” to the names of these doubtlessly guilty parties.
What was the case against them? Almost entirely, their confessions. The most grimly involving section of the movie is the one focusing on the video of prosecutor Elisabeth Lederer trying to nail down the boys’ confessions, which had been almost force fed to them by detectives during more than 20 hours of isolation and interrogation. The much older Santana reads a few of the effectively dictated formal words of his statement and pointedly observes, “A 14-year-old boy doesn’t talk like that.” But they were enough to send him, along with the four others, to prison for from seven to 13 years.
A psychologist observes on camera that such confessions are “irresistibly persuasive” and “trump” conflicting testimony, and even DNA evidence. The DA’s case was hole-ridden, but that wasn’t enough to save the youths from conviction. That they were eventually cleared, the result of a Hollywood-like twist, doesn’t build confidence in law enforcement or the press.
The Central Park Five isn’t just about one gripping true story. It should serve as a primer on how badly American justice can operate, how it can severely damage the innocent, and leave the guilty free to prey on the rest of us.
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