The Central Park Jogger case is revisited in the brave new latest independent documentary film The Central Park Five. In this, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon have made a feature film that throws a glaring light on how ineffectual the justice system can be and reveals the dire consequences of living in a racist society. We have a dangerous, lethal stereotyping pattern in the arrests made in New York City. Last year more black men were arrested than there are black men in NYC. Some of these arrests are of innocent people. I know these statistics and have heard it before. The power of this documentary lies in the revelation of the personal stories of the five black and latino men wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in the Central Park Five case. It moves the issue of injustice away from a statistical game, and pierces at the heart of how the justice system hurts people on a personal level. This case was brought to trial the year I was born, 1989. Twenty three years later, I sit in a private screening with Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and two of the five convicted for a talkback, and I'm shaking.
Watching this documentary and hearing the five tell their own story is a true history lesson and cautionary tale. All five were acquitted of the crimes when a serial rapist confessed, but too late, their sentences had already been served. The documentary goes into detail about what each of the five were doing that night, what the interrogation rooms were like, the timing of the rape, and what soon unravels is a tale of deceit and betrayal. The five were coerced into confession and manipulated into thinking they'd be able to go home if they just mentioned these other four names as present at the crime scene, and correcting their written statements, no wasn't the jogger wearing this colored shirt? Or wasn't she hit with this kind of object? To be clear, the documentarians are not making light of the horrible rape that happened to "The Central Park Jogger" they are focusing instead on the aftermath and coming down hard on the blatant misappropriation of justice that led to the arrest of five boys and let the real perpetrator roam free. The man who actually committed the rape, whose DNA was all over the crime scene, was a known serial rapist, and who confessed to the crime, was not caught that night. His name is Matias Reyes and he went on to rape and kill another woman in front of her three kids, and then yet another woman a few months after that. Finally the police got him into custody, and had his DNA on hand, while the Central Park Five case was going on. For some reason it seems Reyes DNA was never tested against the DNA of the Central Park Jogger case when he was brought into custody. Since NONE of the five boys arrested in the Central Park Jogger case had DNA at the scene of the crime it makes absolutely no sense that Reyes DNA wasn't screened for a match. Years later, when Reyes confessed, they screened the DNA and behold .. a match.
While the whole trial was a disaster, and watching it unfold in the documentary you begin to feel more and more enraged, I was struck by the film because the five men those boys became are still alive today and speaking out. They have had a $250 Million lawsuit against the NYPD which the NYPD has been fighting for nine years. Now the City has a subpoena for outtakes from the feature length film. Threatened much? Ultimately the City needs to apologize verbally and financially to these five men whose lives have been irrevocably changed, and whose constitutions are irrevocably damaged from their imprisonment. On an individual level the documentary made me think differently about my fellow New Yorkers. When I got on the train ride home, I saw the people around me as all afraid of being hurt and as vulnerable beings living their lives as best as they're able. We're all possibly a short cry away from being wrongly imprisoned and blamed for something we did not do. The most important lesson I learned from this documentary is KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. Had those five boys known they had the right to a lawyer, had they known they had the right to remain silent without retribution, they would have never provided materials to self incriminate.
The documentary will be playing at Maysles Institute November 2012. Details here: Central Park Five
I hope you tune in!