Ken Burns bristles at 'justice' given to 'Central Park Five'

Ken Burns is angry.

"No, frustrated," the legendary documentary maker corrects.

"No, OUTRAGED," he adds.

Mr. Burns, creator of lengthy, meticulous, carefully paced documentaries on quintessential American subjects -- the Civil War, jazz, baseball, World War II -- always has been passionate about his work, but when talking about "The Central Park Five," he seems agitated, in a voice that rises impatiently over a reporter's questions.

He's been answering a lot of them while on a nationwide tour to screen and promote the film, which opens at the Regent Square Theater today and airs on PBS April 16. It also may be available on demand through some cable providers.

"Central Park Five" deals with five teenagers between ages 14 and 16 -- Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana -- wrongfully convicted of raping Upper St. Clair native Trisha Meili while she was jogging in Central Park.

To this day, the City of New York, police and prosecutors refused to admit they did anything wrong and have declined to settle a civil rights suit filed a decade ago by the five young men. If anything, they are pushing back at Mr. Burns, issuing a subpoena demanding the documentary's outtakes as part of discovery in the civil suit, which his lawyers are fighting.

Much of Mr. Burns' fury also seems aimed at the news media, who, back in 1989 and 1990, allowed "five human beings to be turned into animals, with all the language of Jim Crow America at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, not the language of a progressive American city at the end of the 20th century."

He holds the press every bit as responsible as those who put the five into jail, for hyping the story by calling them a "wolf pack," who were out "wilding" -- the white mobs at Howard Beach and Bensonhurst were never called names like that in the tabloids, Mr. Burns noted. And when the five were later exonerated, media coverage was practically nil.

"We in the fourth estate failed in our responsibilities," he said.

More than 30 people were arrested on the night of April 19, 1989, when Ms. Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was beaten, raped and left for dead in Central Park, prompting lurid headlines in a city already battling skyrocketing crime rates. Five of those teenagers confessed to the crimes after hours of brutal interrogation, coerced confessions riddled with inconsistencies and errors, which didn't match the facts in the case or each other's confessions. Hair samples, footprints, blood samples -- nothing matched, there was no physical evidence and none of the five had criminal records, but the police and prosecution, eager for a quick resolution, went ahead anyway. The circus-like trial that followed caused an international sensation and much soul-searching -- but when the convictions were overturned 12 years later, the press coverage was almost nonexistent.

In 2002, the real rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed (his DNA matched that on the victim), and a reinvestigation of the case by the New York District Attorney's Office prompted a judge to throw out the five young men's convictions, even though all had served their terms, ranging from seven to 12 years.

Then and now, though, the New York District Attorney's Office and the New York City Police Department have refused to admit they did anything wrong.

Unlike Mr. Burns' other films, there is no narration in "Central Park Five." It's a relatively short two hours in length, and the editing is quick, jittery, utterly in keeping with the subject at hand. No mellow, melancholy ragtime music here -- this isn't a typical Burns production, but rather a collaboration between Mr. Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon.

Indeed, Ms. Burns initiated it: While working as an intern at a law firm one summer involved in representing the plaintiffs in the civil suit, she heard about the case, which led to a college thesis about how race was portrayed by the media in the trial, followed by a book, "The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes."

Once her father started reading her first few pages, he knew this must become a film.

"We wanted to know two things," Mr. Burns said. "What happened that night, and who were these young men?"

Ms. Meili, who wrote movingly about her long, painful recovery in a 2003 book, has no memory of the incident and declined to talk to Mr. Burns.

Why wouldn't she be interviewed?

"I don't know," he said. "My feeling is that because she was invested in that story for so long, it's awfully hard to rearrange the narrative. She has nothing to go on other than what the police told her."

Efforts by the Post-Gazette to reach Ms. Meili were unsuccessful, but in her book, she wrote that she was jarred by the news that the earlier convictions had been thrown out, leaving her "too stunned to respond.

"Reyes became real to me in a way the five had not. I didn't want to see him in the papers or hear him talk on the television. He had murdered a woman and raped more, forcing some at knife point to make a choice: 'Your eyes or your life.' How the hell did I survive?"

She also felt uneasy about Reyes' truthfulness and wrote that she felt "helpless, not as a victim, but as someone who wants to contribute to the truth. Part of my being at peace with the events of April 19, 1989, however, is accepting that I will never know."

For his part, Mr. Burns stressed that "We in the film don't neglect the fact that she is anything other than the victim of a horrible crime."

The police and the prosecutors on the case also refused to talk to Mr. Burns, citing the ongoing lawsuit, but Mr. Burns says it's because "they couldn't answer the questions we would ask them. 'Why did you not entertain any other narrative especially when it became clear that the boys' DNA did not match anything on the crime scene? Why did it take you up to 30 hours to get a "confession," and please put confession in quotes, that turns out to be coerced and false?' "

Making the film led to deep friendship with the five men and their families, some of whom have accompanied them to "dozens and dozens of screenings. ..."

Ray Santana, one of the five, "is so amazingly positive. He sits through a film that just kicks you in the stomach, revealing the humanity and forbearance of five children, and the smugness of the detectives, and then at the end Ray jumps up and the audience stands up and applauds. There aren't any cheers, but it is tremendously moving."

Most of Mr. Burns' films deal with racial issues, but he rejects the notion that race is the central theme of his body of work.

"Any honest engagement with American history will touch on race," he said, noting that a few of his documentaries, including one on Frank Lloyd Wright, didn't. "It's not because we go looking for it" (the "we" in this case referring to his longtime filmmaking team), "but because this is America's original sin. We are the first country that said all men are created equal -- and those words were written by a man [Thomas Jefferson] who owned people."

"The Central Park Five" received a best documentary award from the New York Film Critics Circle but failed to get an Oscar nomination -- perhaps because of the continuing legal issues surrounding it and the case.

Mr. Burns shrugs off that oversight.

"We made the film we wanted to make," he adds. "We want closure on this one. We want the city to settle the case, after delaying so irresponsibly and so cynically for so long. We hope the film will be persuasive in keeping the pressure on."


Mackenzie Carpenter; or 412-263-1949. First Published January 25, 2013 5:00 AM


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