Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Central Park Five

USA (119 mi) 2012 d: Ken Burns       co-directors: Sarah Burns and David McMahon 

Some may question the judgment of a female jogger running alone through New York’s Central Park at night, but no one doubts her right to jog on public grounds at any hour. Trisha Meili worked as an investment banker for Salomon Brothers in downtown Manhattan while living alone in an apartment on East 83rd Street, often working late, changing into her jogging clothes to run six or seven miles through Central Park. She was discovered at 1:30 am on the morning of April 20, 1989, where she was bound and gagged, nearly beaten to death, her skull crushed, her left eyeball smashed, dragged over 200 feet across the grass to a ravine where she was raped and left for dead, losing 75 percent of her blood by the time she arrived at a hospital where she was initially pronounced dead a few hours later. It was nearly two weeks before she awoke from a coma, remembering nothing about the event. By that time, five teenage boys, all black or Hispanic, including Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, 14, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray, 15, and Kharey Wise, 16, had been charged with her rape assault and attempted murder. In a racially charged atmosphere, the newspapers plastered their pictures all over the papers, drawing intense media attention, described as part of a marauding gang of 25 black teen youths terrorizing New Yorkers, likened to wolf packs out on the loose chasing after bicyclists, assaulting pedestrians, some severely, in a heinous animalistic frenzy described as wilding, which was actually something one of the detectives misheard from one of the youths singing Tone Loc’s hip-hop version of “Wild Thing” Tone-Loc - Wild Thing [Official Video HD] - YouTube (4:21). Shortly afterwards, Donald Trump paid $85,000 for four full-page newspaper ads urging New Yorkers to “Bring Back the Death Penalty,” suggesting these kids needed to be executed for their crimes.

Each of the five were eventually convicted and served anywhere from five to 13 years in prison, despite no blood found on any of them and no matching DNA evidence, but all were subject to exhausting marathon police interrogations resulting in damaging confessions, including videotaped testimony, before the real rapist confessed to the crime, Matias Reyes, 17-years old at the time, the perpetrator of a string of rapes on the upper East Side neighborhood, including 5 additional rapes, one of whom he murdered, occurring after this incident before he was eventually apprehended in August later that same year. But it wasn’t until 2002, thirteen years later, that Reyes admitted to the crimes, where his semen and DNA evidence were a match, where the previous sentences were vacated and those still incarcerated were released. Ken Burns directs this film with his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon. Sarah interned with a couple of civil rights attorneys in 2003, where one of them was beginning to explore filing wrongful conviction lawsuits on this case, leading to a book she wrote in 2011, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding. There’s always something humanly compelling about wrongful conviction cases, which is the central focus of this film, examining the continuing long-term ramifications of a miscarriage of justice. It’s the first time these five had a chance to finally tell their stories, which is the real dramatic power of the film, as Burns sympathetically humanizes them before our eyes, building a film around interview footage, including the thoughts of several journalists, family relatives, defense attorneys, two former mayors, Ed Koch and David Dinkins, and many explosive TV news reports seen during the time of their arrests. What’s missing (from the book as well) is a statement from anyone in the New York City Police Department or District Attorney’s office, as they refuse to go on record, likely due to a pending lawsuit, leaving gaping holes in the story, which remains unfinished. 

Each of the five is suing the City of New York for $50 million dollars each, totalling a quarter of a million dollars, which the City refuses to pay, backing the actions of the detectives and attorneys, claiming their actions were completely professional, despite arresting and convicting the wrong guys. As incredulous as it may seem, the police department ran an investigation of their own in 2002 covering their own tracks, finding no wrongdoing whatsoever, “There was no wrongdoing or malice on the part of the prosecutors or the detectives who conducted the investigation. On the contrary, they did solid police work,” still believing from their original confessions that these five had knowledge of the scene of the crime, suggesting they may have had a hand in beating the woman to a pulp before she was raped by somebody else. In their eyes, despite the vacated sentences, they’re still guilty. According to Sarah Burns in her book, the report was intended as political cover. “As far as I can tell, the only people who claim the five had something to do with it have an investment in that outcome.” All of which sheds light on the kind of mistakes society is willing to accept, where that same year, a woman was raped and tossed off a roof in the Bronx and this received little media attention, but a white woman raped by a gang of black youth, this becomes a salacious historical angle, recalling Emmett Till or The Trials of The Scottsboro Boys in the Jim Crow South where blacks used to get lynched on the spot or murdered without a trial for so much as looking at a white girl. According to historian Craig Steven Wilder, a specialist in black urban history, after all is said and done, what’s truly perplexing about this case is “Rather than tying [the case] up in a bow and thinking that there was something we can take away from it, and that we’ll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is that we’re not very good people. And we’re often not.”

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