On April 16th, noted documentarian Ken Burns will debut his Central Park Five documentary on PBS. You will not be able to watch this film without shedding a tear, shaking your head at the injustice of it all and wanting to jump through the screen to hug those scared little boys you will see in the interrogation rooms. The subjects of the film are the five young men who were falsely accused of raping the woman who became known as the Central Park Jogger. These men, who were teenagers at the time, would go on to spend their formative years in prison. Eventually their convictions were vacated once the actual rapist confessed, but their story does not end there.
On April 20, 1989, a young, white investment banker named Trisha Meili was found in Central Park unconscious, badly beaten, raped and partially clothed. Many young men were rounded up in the hours that followed, but five black and Latino boys became the Central Park Five. Kevin Richardson (14), Raymond Santana (14), Yusef Salaam (15), Antron McCray (15) and Korey Wise (16) were found guilty of rape in a jury trial and sent to prison. They were found guilty despite a lack of DNA evidence tying them to the scene, despite no eyewitness accounts and despite conflicting “confessions” of the crime from the young men themselves.
The film documents how this came to pass. With interviews from the five men, footage and newspaper clippings from that time and no narration (only carefully worded facts filling up the screen intermittently), the documentary does an admirable job at being objective. The City of New York refused to give interviews for the film, so the “voice” of the city comes in the form of official statements and news footage from the time period.
How did five boys accused of a horrific crime they did not commit end up confessing to said crime? The film answers that by delving into the tactics used to garner the confessions. These teenage boys were interrogated for hours on end with no sleep, no food, no attorneys and often times with no parents present. It is heartbreaking to watch the events unfold and to watch these now grown men tear up at how they were treated and the years they lost to the prison system.
Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and his DNA was found to match the DNA evidence in the Central Park Jogger’s case. Reyes was 17 years old when he raped Trisha Meili. The Central Park Five have since launched a civil suit against the City of New York, but 10 years after filing that suit, there has been no progress and they have not received a dime in compensation for their wrongful convictions.
There are petitions circulating urging the city to settle, but so far, nothing has happened. New York City has a mayoral election coming up this year though and the possibility of a Central Park Five settlement just might become a campaign issue.
Tune into the Central Park Five documentary on April 16th at 9 pm EST on PBS.
Demetria Irwin is a New York City-based freelance writer/editor. Follow her on Twitter, @Love_Is_Dope.