Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, New York City was the country’s Sodom and Gomorrah, a place shunned and feared by Middle America. Near bankrupt, its school system in a state of collapse, and riddled with crime, crack cocaine, and urban decay, the city had lost the sheen acquired during the glory days of Fiorello La Guardia and Robert Moses.
On April 19, 1989, a 28-year old investment banker was brutally attacked and left for dead in the northernmost reaches of Central Park. Within days, the New York Police Department claimed they’d found the monsters responsible: five African-American teenagers. The case, and the horrendous miscarriage of justice that followed, is examined in a new documentary, The Central Park Five, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, December 14.
It’s hard to imagine any issue that could unite Pat Buchanan and Bob Herbert in common outrage, but in the wake of the Central Park Jogger Case the impossible became reality. The conservative Buchanan and the liberal Herbert sang reprovingly from the same hymnal on editorial pages from sea to shining sea — but they were far from alone.
Politicians and the gutter press were also quick to demonize the five teens charged in the case. Their guilt taken as a given by such worthies as Mayor Ed Koch and Donald Trump, their names linked to a terrifying new phenomenon dubbed ‘wilding’, the Central Park Five – Antron McKray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Korey Wise – became empty vessels into which the nation poured its fear of young black men.
Found guilty in the court of public opinion, the Five would later be convicted of the horrific crime in a court of law. Imprisoned for periods ranging from six to thirteen years, they were exonerated by DNA evidence – and by the confession of the real assailant – in 2002. Now free, the men have since filed suit against the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress.
The Central Park Five carefully picks apart the sloppy and deeply dishonest efforts made by both the NYPD and the office of District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to bring the case to a rapid conclusion. Tellingly, no one from either agency chose to participate in the film – in fact, the bold as brass City of New York has since sued filmmakers Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon as part of its defense strategy against the Central Park Five’s suit.
While racism was at the heart of the Central Park Five’s unjust convictions, there’s another factor I couldn’t help but think about while watching the film: the ages of the defendants, which ranged from 14 to 16. Easily coerced and bullied by adults they assumed had their best interests at heart, the Central Park Five brought to mind the West Memphis Three, a trio of white working-class teens wrongfully convicted of a triple murder in 1993. That’s another horrifying tale of justice perverted, documented in great detail in filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s magisterial Paradise Lost trilogy.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.