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The Central Park Five

December 22, 2012
The Central Park Five

Whenever someone bemoans the “Disneyfied” Times Square and how it’s replaced a somehow more “authentic” and grittier version of New York City, I am given to think that, like the view of the 1950s as some sort of Golden Age, “grit” can only be charming to those with the resources to avoid the business end of the sandblaster. In many ways, the New York of the late 1980s was an ugly place, with the booming financial and financial-services industry pouring money into the hands of the city’s Eloi, while casting those less fortunate more and more as a race of Morlocks, to be simultaneously used and feared.

And when, in April of 1989, a jogger was savagely beaten and raped in Central Park, an example had to be made; expediency was more important than justice. Five teenaged black and hispanic men were rammed through the system despite what should have been glaring alarm bells. Ken Burns’ new documentary — The Central Park Five — uses their plight as a case study in how we as a society can and all-too-often do make scapegoats out of our own citizens.

All five of the boys involved are still around; they were between fourteen and sixteen in 1989, so they’re all still under forty, even. And all of them offer their own perspective about what happened during and after the investigation. In fact it’s surprising how calm and even-tempered they all come off. I don’t doubt that there’s still hurt and anger over what was done to them, but each one seems to have come to terms with his past. None of them deny that on the night in question they were at least following along with a group of boys out “wilding” — the media-hyped term for random harassment and assaults committed for entertainment value. But they all insist that they never had anything to do with the jogger’s assault, and rightly so since we’re told up front that the actual rapist is known.

In the clear light of hindsight, it’s obvious what was horribly, horribly wrong with the prosecution’s case. DNA evidence was still new, but it was enough to show that none of the jogger’s DNA got on any of the boys, and none of theirs got on her — both inconsistent with the savagery of the beating. The reconstructed timeline didn’t seem to add up. The case loosely matched the pattern of a serial rapist that had operated nearby and would continue to operate into the future. The only pieces of evidence used against the boys were their own, mutually inconsistent confessions.

It’s not clear how the detectives came up with these five boys in the first place — neither they nor the prosecutors involved chose to add their own comments — but it seems that it happened something like this: first the police threw out a dragnet to pull in as many of the “wilding” gang as possible; then they interrogated each of them, feeding them some names of the other boys and details of the crimes; then they culled those statements where the boy claimed to have observed the attack, jamming those five into a loose narrative.

Why did these boys claim to witness something they never did? After round-the-clock interrogation, they were willing to come up with some story — any story — just so they could be done and go home, without considering that even if they didn’t implicate themselves, someone else might implicate them. None of them seem to have been represented by a lawyer during the questioning, who might have advised them that it was better not to make any statement at all. And the same desire to just go home seems to have played out again in the jury room, as juror number five tells of being the lone holdout who finally gave in when he proved less adept at the rhetoric of reasonable doubt than Henry Fonda.

Burns’ reconstruction is calm and meticulous, painting a vivid picture of a fractured city, while making it clear that this was far from a unique situation. And that may be the most important thing to take away from the film: when we as a society feel threatened we lash out in search of any target for our anguish, whether deserving or not. To write off the Central Park Five as an anomalous miscarriage of justice ignores all those who have been similarly convicted, but of less lurid crimes without an eventual revelation of the true culprit. How many lives do we ruin in our rush to judgement, desperate to say that something has been done?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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