Movie review: 'Central Park Five' revisits a rush to judgment
January 24, 2013 5:00 AM
New York Daily News Archive
Defendant Yusef Salaam walks into courthouse flanked by police officers in "The Central Park Five."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A camera is not a subpoena.
That is why the makers of "The Central Park Five" could not force the prosecutors and police involved in the investigation of the 1989 rape and beating of a former Pittsburgher to talk about the case.
Instead, they allow the five black and Latino young men to offer their firsthand accounts of how they were coerced to confess to a crime they didn't commit or witness -- and how those words not only haunted them but convicted them.
Unlike the makers of "West Memphis Three," another documentary about a rush to judgment that also cost three young men years (and, in one case, nearly his life), these directors-producers-writers didn't so much finance and drive the investigation as chronicle it and give the accused a voice.
Whatever you remember about the case involving a woman brutally assaulted in Central Park is probably wrong.
A New York Post headline shrieked: "Nightmare in Central Park ... Teen wolfpack beats and rapes Wall Street exec on jogging path." New York Newsday tagged the story: "Terror in Central Park," adding "Rape and Rampage."
As we now know, it wasn't a wolfpack, it was a single, serial rapist and murderer who confessed years later. But that story didn't receive anywhere near the attention the others had.
It's shocking to see the video of the teens, none older than 16 in 1989, and realize just how young and naive they were at the time. After hours of interrogation, most of them were willing to spin whatever story the police wanted -- just so they could go home.
As a man identified as Juror No. 5 says: "It was very hard to imagine why anybody would make up something that not only incriminates them but is full of details that sound like they actually happened." He argued with fellow jurors about discrepancies among the statements and then "found some cockamamie excuse just to vote guilty."
But directors-producers-writers Ken Burns, daughter Sarah Burns (who also wrote a companion book) and David McMahon allow a social psychologist to answer the question the juror raised.
Saul Kassin, noting the boys were in custody and varying degrees of interrogation for 14 to 30 hours, says, "When you are stressed, when you are tired, when you are a juvenile and not fully mature and developed, you're thinking, right now, I just want this to stop."
The documentary, which features four of the five young men on camera and the voice only of the fifth, is a bracing reminder of what New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer acknowledges: A lot of people, including reporters, police, prosecutors and defense lawyers, didn't do their jobs in 1989. The young men were stand-ins for all kinds of other agendas and, justice wasn't among them.
"Central Park Five" does not include any comments from victim Trisha Meili, who identified herself in a 2003 memoir. The former Upper St. Clair resident was near death, suffering from massive brain damage, a crushed eye socket and extensive loss of blood, when rushed to an emergency room after the attack she couldn't remember.
Although "Central Park Five" doesn't address how the five were treated in prison, it allows the young men to reflect on what their conviction meant. One says he doesn't have a car or a career or a family, as he should at this point in this life, while another speaks about the small pleasures that slipped away, such as going to a high school prom or just being an average 14- or 15-year-old.
The movie, which suffers from its lack of voices from the other side, can never right the wrongs perpetrated here. But it can remind everyone about the high cost of pushing innocents to confess to a crime they didn't commit and how race and class governed (and still govern) public opinion.
Lives have been ruined or tarnished and "Central Park Five" gives these young men the chance to speak for themselves in a way that might surprise but certainly will touch you.