If you haven’t seen the film yet, tonight, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, from 9pm-11pm ET, the broadcast TV premiere of The Central Park Five, will air on PBS.
The documentary from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, co-directed with his daughter Sarah Burns, and his son-in-law David McMahon, tells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. The film chronicles the Central Park Jogger case, for the first time, from the perspective of these five teenagers whose lives were upended by this miscarriage of justice, and who are still very much fighting for justice of their own.
The one thing that struck me, and continues to stay with me long after seeing the excellent documentary last fall, is the fact that the titular gentlemen, now all adults, after serving lengthy sentences in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, are still fighting for justice vis-à-vis an unresolved civil suit, which they filed against the City of New York for their wrongful imprisonment, about 10 years ago.
Here’s what I’m referring to: In 2002, all convictions against the 5 men were dismissed due to new evidence (including DNA) that suggested a previously convicted murderer-rapist was the culprit. A year later, in 2003, a multi-million-dollar federal lawsuit was filed by the 5 men for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress – a case, if you’re intimately familiar with the particulars of the matter, or have seen Ken Burns’ least subjective documentary, you’d believe would be a slam-dunk and should’ve been settled almost immediately.
Yet, 10 years later, the 5 men continue to wait for justice to serve them – the same so-called justice that rushed to convict them, despite the fact that there were holes in the evidence that was against them at the time; notably, and maybe most significantly, the fact that the DNA from none of the 5 men was found anywhere within the crime scene – an important piece of evidence that was glazed over, in favor of coerced testimony, without lawyers present, from each of the 5 teens.
But that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; there was far more evidence that suggested they had nothing to do with the Central Park rape that took place in New York City’s Central Park on April 19, 1989, than there was that would incline any officer of the court or jury to convict them of it.
5 young black men raped a white woman. End of story; It’s a juicy headline, and one that conjures up and affirms both historical and present-day fears, stereotypes, and racial prejudices that many have held and continue to hold, all getting in the way of genuine progress.
You can hear the chants: “Of course they did it; after all, all young black men are animals who lust after white women – she who is to be protected and exalted above all others, in American society.”
Meanwhile, across the bridge in Brooklyn, a similar tragedy befalls a black woman, around the same period, as the film notes, but her story is practically ignored, and has become a footnote in history, like so many other cases that came before, and since the central park jogger case.
Once identified, there was an almost immediate, deliberate scheme to ensure that the crime was placed squarely on the shoulders of these 5 young men. This was a case that the NYPD (as the city was facing high crime rates at the time) was determined to solve and close swiftly, to essentially prove to the public that they had the city under order and control. It was like low-hanging fruit, and they attacked like sharks – from the interrogating police, to the attorneys prosecuting the case. They were intent on making sure that the charges stuck, no matter what other evidence came up. And it was thanks to that blinding shortsightedness that they completely overlooked a key DNA match that would’ve brought an end to the case, and saved these young men from conviction and prison time.
It was truly just bad, biased detective work, combined with attorneys looking to make a statement as well as names for themselves. And the fact that these young men are still fighting a system that wronged them, because the system just doesn’t want to admit it was indeed wrong, is enraging.
And more unconscionable is that, even with the new evidence that would eventually clear them, one of the lead prosecutors in the case continued to insist on their guilt, showing absolutely no remorse whatsoever.
Also worth noting, the same media that was so resolute, and even pitiless in covering the trial for a voracious, captive audience, who also wanted to see these young men lynched, reported the reversal of their convictions many years later, with a lot less fan-fare; more like a whisper.
Years of lives lost, never to be lived again, and not even as much as an apology, and certainly no similar public groundswell in support of their civil suit.
With occurrences like these, as well as all the other legalized forms of oppression that we can collectively put under the heading, “living while black in America,” it shouldn’t at all be a shock to the judicial system when there’s a hostility towards, as well as a distrust of law enforcement by black people in this country, which only increases the divide, rather than closes it.
I’m glad that a high profile, revered documentary filmmaker like Ken Burns chose to tackle this story on film, giving it a further-reaching awareness it may not have received otherwise, which could finally assist in bringing justice to these young men.
So do yourself a favor and see The Central Park Five if you missed it on the film festival circuit, and when it had its limited theatrical run. It’s an absolutely engaging, haunting exposé and affirmation of what many already consider to be an unbalanced scale of justice in this country.
It informs and infuriates. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for these young men, knowing fully well that they were innocent of all the charges leveled against them, but yet gave many years of their lives in prison, faced intense public scrutiny and shame, lived with the mental and emotional anguish, and torment over all those years. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.