The New York Times reports that the City of New York has subpoenaed notes and outtakes from “The Central Park Five,” a documentary that highlights a mark of shame on the city’s justice system. The filmmakers, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns (upon whose book the film is based) and David McMahon, responded to the subpoena Wednesday by stating that it has long been expected but that they intend to invoke their constitutional and statutory rights to withhold the materials.
Read their complete statement and watch the trailer below.
“The Central Park Five” is a documentary that chronicles the wrongful 1989 conviction of five young men who were accused of raping a jogger in the New York City park. The film looks at how our legal system rushed to judgment in this racially fueled case, resulting in false confessions and conflicting evidence that condemned the five men to serving full terms in prison. The case was eventually reopened and the men were released after the true rapist came forward, but their youth had already been lost.
The film recently played at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals. THR wrote, “While relatively conventional in style and structure, and lacking the complex narration and intricate visual textures that are among the senior Burns’ signatures, the film tells a shocking story in eloquent, even-handed and affecting terms,” and FilmSchoolRejects declared it “enormously engaging.”
Sundance Selects acquired rights to release the film theatrically before its planned airing on PBS. The film will likely be pushed for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary feature.
Read the statement from Burns, Burns and McMahon:
For the last ten years the City has refused to settle the civil rights lawsuit brought by these young men. This strikes us as just another effort to delay and deny closure and justice to these five men, each of whom was cleared of guilt even though they served out their full and unjustified terms.
As you can imagine, we strongly believe in the media’s right to investigate and report on these and other issues and that this process, including the reporting notes and outtakes, come under the New York reporters’ shield law. The government has an exacting burden before it can obtain these and other materials.
“The Central Park Five” examines how the legal system’s rush to judgment-fueled by a city racially divided and fearful of crime-resulted in false confessions and no reassessment of the charges as conflicting evidence came in. This left a brutal rapist on the streets and robbed five innocent kids of their youth, all of whom served out their full terms. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, after directing a thorough re-investigation when the actual rapist came forward and confessed, and realizing his office’s mistakes, joined with the defense to request that the convictions be vacated, which was instantly granted by Judge Charles Tejada.
In a letter to the City’s Law Department, John Siegal, the attorney retained by Florentine Films, explained that the subpoena was “overbroad,” since it seeks all materials the filmmakers collected in the course of researching, shooting and editing the film. “The subpoena served by your office is neither appropriate nor enforceable under the governing law for subpoenas served on professional journalists exercising their right of independent free speech and comment on a matter of public importance,” Mr. Siegal wrote.
“Florentine Films has carefully considered the subpoena and is sensitive to the important work performed by your office and the issues involved in the case. But, due to a deeply held belief that its future ability to make films about matters of public interest would be compromised by complying with the subpoena, Florentine Films respectfully intends to invoke its constitutional and statutory rights and withhold the unpublished materials sought by your office.”
In the letter, Mr. Siegal explained as well that Florentine Films has had no financial relationship with those interviewed in the film, nor with any of their representatives.