The Central Park Five (Sundance Selects, NR)

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centralparkfive 75It seems like little consolation to those wrongly accused that a good film resulted from this case.

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2012 has been an incredible year for stories of wrongful convictions. On the film side, we had Paradise Lost 3 premiere on HBO early this year, and West of Memphis, which is going into gradual release late this year, covers the same (incredible) topic. Meanwhile, the dominant figure from those stories, Damien Echols, published his excellent memoir, Life After Death, a few months back, and around the same time, filmmaker Errol Morris saw publication of his also-excellent book A Wilderness of Error, which is about the long-debated Jeffrey MacDonald murders. And now we have The Central Park Five, the new documentary from Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, about the rape and near-murder of a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989, and the five young black or Latino boys convicted of it.

Unlike the Paradise Lost films—or, say, Morris’ 1988 documentary The Thin Blue LineThe Central Park Five isn’t going to get anyone out of jail. The Five are already out, and the case has been solved…but not before the five boys of the title lost seven years (or more) of their childhoods to the case. The short version (and this isn’t giving away any “plot twists” in the film, if such a thing even exists in a documentary about a much-publicized news story) is that the NYPD were under serious pressure to catch the culprit(s) in this ugly, vicious crime (then-Mayor Ed Koch, who is interviewed in the film, says that for him this case was the “crime of the century”). Concurrently with the rape/beating, a huge group of boys was picked up in another part of the park for terrorizing people, which is how the Five came to be potential scapegoats for this crime. 

As you can guess, those boys came to be railroaded for the rape and beating, seemingly because it was convenient for the police to do so, and despite the fact that it seems like even a cursory look at the evidence would have shown that they couldn’t’ve possibly done it. The trick here is that the police were able to extract confessions from not one, but all of the Central Park Five. It’s well documented how it isn’t difficult to coerce a false confession from young people (four of the CP5 were 14 years old, and the fifth was 16), including by the first Paradise Lost film. If you compare the details of the five confessions, they neither line up with each other nor with the facts of the case—but still, it’s hard to convince a jury that you’re innocent of a crime once a confession is on record. Then, after about 13 years and the release of all but one of the Five (they got short-ish sentences on account of their age), the real perpetrator, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who was in prison for many other crimes, finally confessed.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that, for those of us who don’t know or remember, New York City was having problems with race relations at the time (Spike Lee’s Brooklyn-set Do the Right Thing was released in ’89, if that helps), so to the few who could see the railroading of the boys as it was occurring, the injustice of this was all the uglier. All five of the CP5 are interviewed for the film (though one, Antron McCray, is only heard so as to protect his privacy), and they all come off as likeable, well-adjusted people, especially considering the circumstances of many of their formative years. It seems like little consolation that a good film resulted from this case, but maybe in part because of this—alongside all of the other aforementioned good wrongful-conviction stuff to pop up this year—accuracy and accountability from policemen and prosecutors will hopefully become more of an issue, and we as a society can approach addressing the problem. | Pete Timmermann

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