The subjects of Ken and Sarah Burns and David MacMahon’s “Central Park Five” have settled their law suit against the City of New York’s mishandling of their case. The searing documentary examined the racially charged 1989 case of a Central Park jogger’s rape and brutal assault. The five plaintiffs have reached a $40 million settlement agreement with the New York’s Law Department, thus ending an extended legal battle. According to the New York Times, “the confidential deal, disclosed by a person who is not a party in the lawsuit but was told about the proposed settlement, must still be approved by the city comptroller and then by a federal judge.”
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam, all juveniles in 1989, were originally sentenced in the case, with convictions based almost solely on confessions following 16 hours of interrogation without legal representation. The beating and rape of a woman jogger was widely covered by the media, who tapped into fears of lawlessness and marauding “wolf packs” in New York. In 2002, convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, serving time for other crimes, confessed that he had committed the assault. DNA evidence confirmed his confession. The original five sued the City of New York for the case’s mishandling and their 15 years spent in prison.
In the face of the law suit, the city wanted all research gathered by the filmmakers, but the New York courts ruled in favor of the documentary after the city attempted to subpoena outtakes. The court found that documentarians qualify as journalists with the benefit of Journalistic Privilege, and that their right to “uncover new information, advocate action and initiate public debate where none has previously existed” is protected. Attorney Andrew Cielli and doc advocate Michael C. Donaldson filed an amicus brief on behalf of the documentary community, with support from the International Documentary Association, NAMAC and Film Independent.
Bravo to all for prevailing at a time when documentary journalism is filling a role that broadcast journalism is not.