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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012 DOC NYC - Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon's The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five, a documentary about the Central Park Jogger case of 1989 and the ramifications of racial profiling against its wrongly imprisoned convicts, has recently run into more controversy. The film, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, has been under fire with the New York City government. The City has issued a subpoena against the production company, claiming illegal possession of footage which would offer in evidence in favor of the charges that the convicts were not only innocent, but mislead and misled into making false confessions. As the former convicts are now suing the city for wrongful imprisonment and racial discrimination, this footage would serve as greater ammunition against the city's offenses. The film is a devastating look at police investigations that target minority youth, and the justice system which decides in favor of their imprisonment, robbing the youth of opportunities and chances to be well-adjusted, successful citizens.

In 1989 New York City, racially-motivated violence swept the airwaves. With high-profile cases such as the 1984 Bernard Goetz shooting of teenage muggers in the subway, the 1986 beating death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, and the 1989 shooting death of Yusuf Hawkins, the city was seen as a war zone. Crime was at an all-time high, and the police and Mayor Ed Koch were under enormous pressure to maintain order. It would take the near death of an upper-class white woman and the arrest of five teenage boys from Harlem to declare “justice” being served in the eyes of law enforcement.

The film builds up to the case slowly, through a series of events. The subjects, now men close to age 40, spoke about being average teen boys growing up in Harlem, living good lives. One night, they decided to hang out in Central Park with twenty other teenage boys, and getting caught up in petty violence along the way. But in the park, a young jogger, a 28-year old investment banker named Trisha Meili, was viciously beaten and raped, barely alive when she was discovered.  The boys, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, were brought down to the police station, under the guise of the police just “wanting to ask them a few questions,” “and You’ll be home in no time." But after hours of questioning , and two days of sleep deprivation, the police were tricking them into false confessions with lines like “Just tell us the truth and you can go home.” One of the men poignantly stated, “I went to the precinct, and I came home 13 years later.”

The scenes where the men remember the manipulation and their fear as innocent teen boys not understanding the justice system are tragic to watch. The shakiness in their eyes and bodies is palpable, and their hopes that it can all be over are dashed as the media pounced on the story. Their methods included publishing the underage suspects’ names (while withholding the victim’s name), calling for the death penalty on these children, and using language like “wolf pack,” comparing young black youth to animals. The bloodlust was disgusting, and raises images of lynchings from decades past. The race was on to implicate suspects who dared to injure an upper-class white woman, while ignoring similar cases where the victims and assailants were not white or lived in a lower-income neighborhood.

Despite mounting DNA evidence and inconsistent stories that proved that the boys were innocent, the trial still found the boys guilty, as a way of wrapping up the case and scoring a win for the justice system. Meanwhile, the true assailant, Matias Reyes, who had raped several women on the Upper East Side before attacking Meili, was still active for years as a rapist/murderer before being sent to prison, and admitting in 2002 to his part in the Central Park Jogger case. While the former convicted boys were now free of their charges, it still wouldn’t bring back their youth and lost years spent serving a sentence for a crime they didn’t commit.

The film is incredibly sad to watch, and painful to see innocent children being abused in the press, manipulated by a racist justice system, and having their lives ruined, not just by a corrupt police investigation, but by Matias Reyes, who stole their youth and nearly murdered an innocent woman. It was a tragic and horrible case for all the victims involved, and an example of the dangers of public witchhunts in order to fulfill a societal need to “get the bad guy” and continue on with life.

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