'Central Park Five' Documentary On New York Justice System Breakdown Pulls Filmmaker Into Legal Battle

Central Park Five: Documentary Highlights N.Y. Justice System Breakdown

The documentary begins in New York’s Central Park, with a large, hazy moon poking through a network of bare tree branches, followed by a sobering reminder of what happened there: On April 19, 1989, passersby discovered a jogger, beaten, raped and left for dead, in this section of the park.

The documentary goes on to recount what happened next: Five teenagers – all of them either black or Latino, and from Harlem -- were convicted of the crime, sent to prison for nearly a decade or more and released, only to later see all of their convictions vacated in 2002. A serial rapist who happened to cross paths in prison with one of the wrongly convicted teens, confessed to the crime. His DNA matched evidence found in the park. No physical evidence was ever found conclusively linking the five teens to the rape and assault.

The jogger, a young, white, petite and Ivy League- educated investment banker, has never had any memory of the crime. Police and most of the city officials even remotely involved in the prosecution of the five teenagers declined to comment on the documentary. And one of the five young men falsely accused and imprisoned remains so shell-shocked and concerned about the crime’s stigma that he declined to appear on camera.

All of this is in play in Ken Burns' latest documentary, “The Central Park Five,” which he made with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon. The film, which debuted publicly Nov. 23, allows Ken Burns, one of the country’s best-known documentary filmmakers, to examine the ways in which race and anxieties around it can shape and sometimes disfigure our communities. Sarah Burns first wrote about the case while a senior at Yale in 2003 and then followed the story while working for a lawyer in New York before publishing a book, “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding,” last year.

Meanwhile, the New York City government is actively fighting a $250 million civil suit that the Central Park Five and their family members filed in 2003, accusing the city as well as the individual police officers and prosecutors who worked on the case of violating their civil rights. In September, the city also began waging a legal war with the filmmakers, asking a court to force Burns’ company, Florentine Films, to turn over all notes and outtakes not included in the final documentary for city review, saying it could use the material to defend itself. Earlier this month, city lawyers filed additional documents claiming that Ken Burns and his colleagues are not journalists and therefore aren’t entitled to invoke legal privileges to protect their work product.

Lawyers for Florentine have moved to quash the city’s subpoena on the grounds that they do indeed consider themselves journalists, and that reporters in New York cannot be compelled to share their work product with government officials.

“This is the purest piece of journalism we’ve ever done in that all we do is lay out the facts, give these young men who have been so dehumanized a chance to tell their own story in their own words,” said Burns. “This film is a powerful, clear-eyed look at the facts that ultimately reveal the way that these boys -- and they were young boys -- were screwed.”

Some of the people involved with the arrests and prosecution of the Central Park Five continue to maintain they did nothing wrong or that the teenagers were, in fact, somehow connected to the crime. A New York Police Department-commissioned review, which was made public in 2003, asserted that the police officers involved did nothing wrong.

Sarah Burns said that she believes the methods the police used in the case weren’t, actually, out of the norm.

“The factors that contributed to a miscarriage of justice in this case aren’t part of an isolated incident where officers veered dramatically from established interrogation procedures,” she said. “This was, in most ways, by the book. So, the most frightening thing here is that I think it could very easily happen again.”

The Huffington Post attempted to contact the prosecutors, and police at the center of the Central Park Five convictions. Most did not respond to requests for comment or declined interview requests pointing to the ongoing civil suit. The New York Police Department did not respond to a request for information about the status of the detectives involved in the investigation or interrogations at the center of the case and the vacated convictions.

Linda Fairstein, head of the sex crimes unit in the district attorney’s office during the case, left in 2002 to write crime novels that feature a female prosecutor as the heroine. Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutor who handled the Central Park jogger trials, today leads a unit in the district attorney’s office that investigates labor corruption, and teaches at Columbia University’s Law School. Detective Mike Sheehan, one of the officers involved in securing the teenagers' confessions, left the police force in 1993 to become a crime reporter for New York television stations. After hitting a police horse and getting fired from his last job, Sheehan began writing and consulting on an NBC crime drama. None of the three responded to requests for comment.

The woman raped and beaten in the attack did not respond to a request for comment left at her home. And three of the Central Park Five -- Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise -- also could not be reached for comment.

“What happened in this case, it sounds like the plot of a movie or some really, really horrible dream,” said Yusef Salaam, one of the five wrongfully convicted teens who are all now approaching middle age. “Only for us, this was a living, waking nightmare where the people who persecuted and hounded us, then built their careers and, in some cases, made their fortunes off this case, are still insisting they didn’t do a single thing wrong. So, the average person still believes that we somehow got out on a technicality.”


Ken Burns’ camera has typically glided back generations in time, giving life to historical black and white photos, and the diary entries, letters and voices of the deceased. In “The Central Park Five,” that camera sweeps viewers back just 23 years to the multi-colored tableau of a graffiti-bathed New York in 1989.

New York had put its flirtation with bankruptcy behind it, but remained vexed by curtailed city spending, crack cocaine, street crime and poverty. At the same time, neighborhoods gripped by those ills sat within blocks of others where professionals, financiers, dreamers, artists and business owners were charting new pathways to wealth and building mega-fortunes.

During the 1980s, a series of racially motivated crimes -- black men beaten, shot or chased to their deaths by white mobs, as well as mayhem in Central Park led by a group of mostly black teens after a Diana Ross concert –- also made plain that New York was still plagued by the kind of racial tensions and fears that ultimately became deeply entwined in the Central Park jogger case.

“There is a notion that a criminal gene of some sort rests in the black body and that it is only awaiting a chance to commit heinous crimes,” said Roger Wareham, a lawyer who defended three of the Central Park Five in the 2002 case that helped overturn their convictions, and is representing three of the men in the group’s ongoing civil suit. “That belief or presumption runs through the entire system. It’s the notion that undergirds policies like Stop and Frisk today.”

In April 1989, construction workers walking through the park after a night of drinking discovered the woman who would become known as “The Central Park Jogger” in the park around 1:30 a.m. Police had already detained some the five teens who would ultimately be convicted of the crime. The police had also rounded up others believed to have been in the park when another jogger, a man, reported that a group of teens beat him in one section of the park. A couple riding a tandem bike reported a group of teenagers harassed them in another. In still another section, teens beat a homeless man and stole his food.

The Central Park Five maintain that while they saw those crimes and others like them in the park that night, they were in no way involved.

“What they did, as I understand it now, having watched "Law & Order," having watched "CSI," was basically a dragnet,” said Salaam, 38, of how the police corralled young suspects in Harlem. In 1989, Salaam attended a private school and was the only one of the five who didn’t have the day off from classes.

“By the time I got home from school the next day, the police had basically gone through and scooped up most of the young people who lived in the neighborhood. Somehow my name was on their list.”

Salaam, then 15, and a friend who happened to be with him, Wise, were brought to the police precinct. The police officer who took them in told the boys that Wise’s name was not on the list but encouraged Wise to come down and keep his “buddy,” company. Wise wound up spending more time than any of the others -- nearly 12 years -- in prison.

Within days, reporters picked up police language and coined new phrases for the group of teenagers -- 25 or more -- who entered the park in a loose group the night of the jogger’s attack. The group became “a wolfpack,” and the criminal harassment and assaults that some engaged in, “wilding” -- a term none of the teens arrested in the Central Park Jogger case say they had ever heard.

“It was the kind of language usually reserved for animals,” Sarah Burns said. “They are called savages and beasts, and terms like wilding and packs were thrown around in almost every story. It was the language used to describe the Scottsboro Boys, only this was happening right here in New York City in 1989.”

The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teens accused of raping a white woman in Alabama in 1931. After a series of trials and Supreme Court appeals each of the teens was sentenced to death, or lengthy-to-lifelong prison terms. The case also led to a Supreme Court ruling that held the systemic exclusion of blacks from jury pools was unconstitutional.

Salaam, and Raymond Santana, another of the Central Park Five, said that in the rush to determine who had raped and assaulted a white woman in 1989, New York police and other investigators ignored real evidence.

Prosecutors knew before the trials began that DNA evidence recovered in the case did not match any of the five teens, according to a court document filed by the district attorney’s office as part of a motion to overturn the convictions. This fact came up during the Central Park Five's trials. During the time between the Central Park rape and his arrest in 1990, Matias Reyes, the man whose confession and DNA ultimately linked him to the Central Park rape, attacked four more women and killed one of them.

In a series of interviews both Salaam and Santana said they and other members of the group convicted in the Central Park case were repeatedly questioned by a number of detectives. Both men say they were told they could go home if they simply implicated others, admitted to peripheral involvement in the crime, or said they were close enough to clearly see others commit the crime. Some were told that evidence was found at the scene connecting them to the jogger attack.

“They kept saying 'come on, come on, I need you to help me out',” said Santana, who is now 38 and works for a union pension fund, but was only 14 when he was hauled into the police station. “'I know that you are a good kid and I want to be able to send you home.'”

None of the boys or their parents had ever been in trouble with the law. Under police pressure, four of the boys admitted to roles in the crime and implicated others. After hours of interrogation and signing written statements, three of the boys’ parents appear in the documentary, ashen, exhausted and almost still as the teens confess on tape to touching the jogger’s breasts, holding her arms or legs, watching others rape her, or doing so themselves.

“We all lied because that’s what they told us to do,” said Santana in a recent interview. “We all lied.”

Police say Salaam made a verbal confession. But he did not sign a statement or make a confession on video tape. The primary reason: His mother insisted that police let her take her son home after several hours of interrogation, Salaam said.

“It was as if there was no way we could possibly be innocent and no way we were getting out of there alive without admitting to something,” said Salaam, who today works as a wireless communications administrator.

Salaam was 15 when he was arrested. “I could hear Korey Wise screaming in another room. I wasn’t sure what they were doing to him. But I remember thinking OK, these men might really take me somewhere in this precinct and kill me.”

Police have denied that any of the teens were physically abused during their interrogations.

Saul Kassin, a social psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Williams College who appears in the film, said the notion that people cannot be compelled to implicate themselves in a crime they did not commit is pervasive -- and erroneous.

Police push hard for confessions because when cases reach juries, confessions often trump DNA evidence, eyewitness testimony and every other possible proof of innocence, Kassin said. Kassin has studied juries, case outcomes and the effect of defendant statements for more than 30 years.

“What can be more convincing than people acting against their own self interest? We expect criminals to resist confession,” Kassin said, “and we certainly don’t expect innocent people to confess to a crime. But the fact is we know it happens. We know how it happens. We even know to whom it is more likely to happen. But, what we don’t know is how often it happens.”

Law enforcement officers know that psychologically, the more stressed that human beings become, the more they focus on short-term needs and grow increasingly incapable of contemplating long-term consequences, Kassin said.

Young suspects, those with any sort of developmental or mental disability and people under extreme stress are most likely to be compelled to confess to crimes, even sometimes, crimes they did not commit, Kassin said.

The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy advocacy organization that only takes cases in which DNA evidence exists that may affirm or overturn a conviction, found that in 25 percent of the cases in which it has been able to overturn a conviction, defendants made a false or coerced confession.

The average confession typically takes 30 minutes to four hours to secure, Kassin said. The majority of known false confessions follow interrogations that stretched, 12 to 14 hours or more. New York police interrogated the Central Park Five for 14 to 30 hours, according to court documents filed by the men’s lawyers.

Today in New York, police procedures have not changed. Officers can lie to suspects about evidence during interrogations. And, suspects are not videotaped from the time that interrogations begin. Only confessions, the end result, are taped.

“That, to me, is the one thing that everybody ought to be able to agree needs to change,” said Santana. “If they put suspects on tape, the minute they put you in that chair. If everything that everybody in that room said were recorded from the jump, then everybody would see what really happens in some of those interrogations. And some things, the things that happened to me, they just wouldn’t happen.”

In the film, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who served during the 1990s after the Central Park jogger trial, reads from a statement issued by the district attorney’s office examining the convictions, confessions and prosecutions after Reyes confessed to the crimes.

“‘The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime. Who initiated the attack. Who knocked the victim down. Who undressed her. Who struck her. Who held her. Who raped her. What weapons were used ... Some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact. Now, this is a damn shame,” Dinkins, the city’s only black mayor, said.

The shame that hangs around the Central Park jogger case enveloped several lives and the documentary leaves few involved blameless.

McCray, the only one of the wrongfully convicted teens who does not appear on camera in the film, recounts in a voiceover the fact that his father -- a man who coached his little league games, and did not stop his son from making a false confession -- left the family during the trial. McCray’s father apologized while he was in prison and reunited with McCray’s mother. Years later, when McCray’s father died, the two men were hardly speaking.

Salaam recalls seeing his lawyer, a friend of his mother’s, asleep during his trial. Wise talks about being astounded by the contents of his own confession when played in court and the grilling he endured on the stand. And, he talks about the fact that his father drank himself to death while Wise was in prison.

Santana realized mid-trial that his own lawyer believed that he and the others had committed the crime. And a juror, who was unconvinced by the evidence, admits in the film that under pressure he voted guilty, “just to get out of there.”

“At the time in New York there was this sense that black and Latino young men in this city were the source of problems, and that the city was out of control,” said Sarah Burns. “So this story fit the pattern. The only problem is that the whole case was built on lies. And in the ultimate irony, we would not know any of this if it weren’t for Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who is very likely a sociopath. He crossed paths with Korey Wise in prison and was disturbed by the pain in Korey’s eyes.”

In 2003, when the commission tapped by the police to review the case issued its report, the three-member panel dismissed the idea that the teenage suspects' confessions were coerced, doubted Reyes’ claim that he acted alone and posited a third theory of the crime. The teens, the report suggested, may have “mauled” the jogger in a sexual way, the report said -- after which Reyes, either with the teens or after them, likely perpetrated a more brutal attack and rape.

Some of the lawyers on the commission had deep and longstanding ties to the department. One had worked as a New York police officer. Another had been a city prosecutor -- the first to ever indict a police officer for murder after an on-duty shooting -- and served on another commission that investigated police corruption in the 1970s that went on to initiate officer indictments. The third was the police department's deputy commissioner for legal matters.

Only Michael Armstrong, the former prosecutor and the commission’s head, could be reached for comment. He described the group’s work as a honest attempt to understand first, if the police did anything wrong and second, whether Reyes was guilty. Armstrong saw the documentary last week.

“It’s more nuanced, there’s just more to it than Ken Burns would have you think,” said Armstrong, who was interviewed by the filmmakers but not included in the documentary. “Burns wanted to take his daughter’s thesis and turn it into a crusade and he has produced something that in my opinion takes one side.”

New York police and prosecutors declined to participate in the documentary due to the ongoing civil suit.

Reyes, who is serving a life sentence in a New York prison, also declined to appear on camera. A recording of one of his statements about the Central Park rape offers a chilling set of details about the crime. He was never charged in the case because by the time he confessed, he was already serving a life sentence for the rape of three women, and the rape and murder of a fourth. But the district attorney's office and the three-person commission agreed Reyes was involved because his DNA was found inside the victim and on her clothing.

New York is one of 25 states that provides compensation, via a set formula, to wrongfully convicted individuals who can prove that they were not convicted because of their own actions or due to an honest mistake.

But the Central Park Five have sued New York in federal court, not state court. If they prevail, they could win a large payout and compel changes in police or prosecutor policies, said Wareham, a lawyer defending some of the men in the suit.

“Spending their teenage years in prison, it changed the whole arc of these men’s lives,” he said.

Adele Bernhard, a professor at Pace University Law School, runs the Criminal Justice Post Conviction Project. The project takes on cases where there is little-to-no DNA evidence to support the claim that a defendant has been wrongfully convicted.

“The city is still fighting because it represents the police,” said Bernhard of the Central Park Five’s suit. “The police are unwilling to concede that the confessions were illegitimate so therefore they cannot concede that the men are innocent.”

The justice system is, of course, vulnerable to human error. Sometimes witnesses, police and prosecutors with good intentions -- calming a frightened city’s fears by quickly solving a crime, making a community safer or just bringing some measure of justice to a victim -- and those without them blame the wrong person for a crime, Bernhard said.

The Central Park Five will have to show that what happened to them was not simply a mistake, she said. Bernhard thinks they have a solid case.

“I think we are at a point where everyone can see and the evidence shows that [the police] coerced these confessions out of these kids,” she said. “They gave them details to make their confessions more convincing, even if they didn’t realize they were doing that. And, that’s what caused them to spend all those years in jail. Those are the logical conclusions here. That’s what a jury is likely to see.”

In the latest chapter of the long-running civil suit, the city scaled back its request for information from the documentary makers, saying New York City needs interviews with the Central Park Five and their family members that don’t appear in the film in order to mount a full defense. The information it needs isn’t available anywhere else, according to the city.

In documents filed with a federal court this month, city lawyers said New York has a right to the footage because the filmmakers have advocated for the Central Park Five, essentially aligning with the men. While in college, Sarah Burns worked as an intern for one of the lawyers representing some of the Central Park Five in the civil suit. And, in a 2009 letter to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Ken Burns encouraged the mayor to resolve the case, according to court documents filed by the city.

Burns said he sent the letter after running into Bloomberg at an event and telling him about the film. The mayor asked him to send a note, Burns said. Sarah Burns had long stopped working for the lawyer when she began work on the film and that lawyer had no influence in what appeared in the documentary, the Burns’ lawyers wrote in court documents. They contend that they are documentarians who arrived at a point of view -- that a grave injustice has been done, remains unresolved and could easily repeat itself in New York and in many parts of the country -- after reporting on and examining a complex story. That is no different, they say, than the work that columnists produce for The New York Times or the mayor’s namesake, Bloomberg News.

“What’s happening to us, what the city is trying to do is ultimately a sideshow, the least of some very egregious injustices in this 23-year saga,” said Ken Burns. “But I see it as a cynical attempt to delay something that is bigger than all of us -- the march toward justice.”

CLARIFICATION: Language has been amended to reflect more accurately the Supreme Court decision that ruled the systematic exclusion of black citizens from jury pools to be unconstitutional.

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