NEW YORK—“The Central Park Five” is a new film that brings to life a painful part of New York history when female jogger, Trisha Meili, was raped in Central Park in 1989. Following the crime, five young men were convicted. Only years later did a confession and DNA evidence prove that the convictions were wrong.
The documentary by Ken Burns puts the viewer in the cultural context of New York during the late 1980s. An influx of money into Wall Street had created a wealthy, mostly white, middle and upper class creating a class gap between an underclass of mostly African-Americans and Latinos. Racial tension was high.
Crime rates had stepped up since crack-cocaine had hit the streets in 1984. Street life was teeming with gang violence.
Amid this setting the film recounts the sequence of events that followed. On that fateful night in 1989, Meili, a white investment banker, was raped by the reservoir in Central Park. A group of 30 or so boys had been in the park that night, some of whom were involved in muggings and had been arrested by police.
When the jogger was found, police suspected individuals in the group and brought them in for interrogation. The interrogation would last for some 30 hours.
In the documentary the Central Park five describe how they were worn down over the night. Then, with promises from police that they would be let go, some of the 30 wrote statements that implicated others whom they had never met. Director Ken Burns describes it as a “circular firing squad.”
The following day the five, comprised of African-Americans and Latinos, were arrested. Quickly, a climate of sensational media sparked public outrage toward the five, who were dehumanized as “animals” and “a pack of wolves.” Donald Trump ran full page ads in four papers calling for the death sentence to be reinstated.
The five were convicted based on coerced statements, inconsistencies in the stories, and a lack of DNA evidence—all ignored. “There was nothing of the horrible crime scene on them and nothing of them on the crime scene,” Burns said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos.
The case concluded with the five convictions and prison sentences that would last for 5-12 years across the group. The five were kids, ages 14 to 16.
In 2002, after the last of the five had already been released, the actual culprit confessed to the crime. DNA evidence confirmed the serial rapist and murderer, who was serving a life sentence for other crimes, did indeed rape Trisha Meili. The five exonerated boys, who were now men, had born the full weight of the city, had sacrificed a large chunk of their lives, and had been subjected to hazardous prison conditions.
“We failed to be skeptical,” said Jim Dwyer, who wrote for Newsday in 1989.
After the five were exonerated, they received little attention, nothing compared to the attention they received when they were wrongly accused in 1989. Many still hold to their doubts as to whether the five were innocent. This is where the film now plays an active role.
Since being released from prison, one of the five, Yusef Salaam, went on to finish a college education and worked in the Web design industry and later wireless technology. He has five children between the ages of 10 months and 11 years old.
Another of the five, Raymond Santana, currently works full time and contributes his spare time to an organization assisting those who have been falsely accused. Santana now lives with his eight-year-old daughter.
The Central Park five, brought together around the events, have become close friends.
“Anton [another of the five] calls me every day, he stops by and talks to my dad all the time,” said Santana.
The film hopes to bring closure. “It brings some justice to them and it also heals the city, it’s been an open wound for way too long,” said Burns.
“We want folks to be so upset that they bought the lie,” said Salaam. “Since 1989 till now, we’ve waited long enough for this thing to be over.”
“The Central Park Five” will open on Friday at the IFC Center, Lincoln Plaza, and the Maysles Cinema and more widely in the following weeks.
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