Saturday, December 15, 2012

"The Central Park Five": Ken Burns documents NYC's miscarriage of justice after 1989 "wilding" case


Ken Burns, along with Sarah Burns and Ken McMahon, have filmed a grim documentary about wrongful conviction, “The Central Park Five”.  It’s relatively unusual for a PBS documentary to get a theatrical release first (this one from Sundance Selects).  I saw it Saturday night, late, at the Landmark E Street in Washington DC before a small audience.

The film is told largely through the “Five”, one of whom is heard only in voice.  The NYPD apprehended the teens in the overnight hours of April 19, 1989 for mischief, and then tried to pin the assault on a white female jogger on them.  As juveniles, they were not able to resist police pressure to confess.  The police then ignored factual evidence that might have made the confessions look questionable.  One of the five would meet the real rapist years later in prison, and that prisoner would admit the guilt.

Even so, vacating the convictions was difficult at first, and the press attacked DA Morgenthau, as the press could not accept its own role in the miscarriage of justice.

Much of the trial occurred in the media, who grew the story about “wilding”. The City was very divided in the late 80s, with Wall Street booming under Reagan but with the underclass, mostly blacks and latinos, growning even more desperate, following the financial decay and crisis of the 1970s.  Ed Koch, who had become mayor in 1978, often appears, as do New York Times reporters, and at least one juror. 

The jogger, Trisha Miell, would eventually make a difficult recovery and run NYC marathons. 

New York City, in defending a civil lawsuit brought by the Five, tried to subpoena film material from the directors, who refused, claiming journalistic shield.  The filmmakers also say that NYC had DNA evidence that contradicted the accusations against the Five but chose to prosecute them anyway. 


Ken Burns’s company. Florentine Films, has a website here.

Burns has reportedly refused to turn over material from the film to New York City.

See a related review of  the CourtTV fi;m, “The Exonerated”, by the Innocence Project, on the TV Blog, July 23, 2012. 

Update: May 3, 2013

See the New York Times article by Jim Dwyer on p. A18, "From 'Central Park Five' Case, a Lesson in Assigning Blame", about prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, link here.  

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