The other crime was punishment
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 14, 2012
Both meticulous and inflammatory, the documentary “The Central Park Five” re-examines the notorious 1989 case of the Central Park jogger, a horrifying assault in which Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old Manhattanite, was beaten, raped and left for dead while on her evening run. More specifically, the movie looks at another horrifying fact: Five teenagers -- four black and one Latino -- were arrested, tried and sentenced to stiff prison terms for the crime, only to be exonerated 10 years ago, after the real attacker confessed.
How could this second crime have occurred? The film asks that question but only partly answers it, and in the process it raises an even more troubling one.
Directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, with a tone of measured outrage, the film powerfully argues that racism explains everything. And it probably does explain a lot. In a prologue, the filmmakers set the stage, painting an edgy city in an edgy time of wide economic disparity and simmering class resentment that sometimes boiled over into violence. The attack of a young, upwardly mobile white woman, allegedly by a “wolf pack,” as many news reports described it, crystallized widespread fears and prejudices.
It didn’t matter that the five youngsters’ confessions didn’t line up with each other (or even with the known facts of the case) or that the DNA evidence found on the victim matched none of theirs. The narrative of children run amok in the streets -- or “wilding,” as it became known -- coincided with what the filmmakers suggest we wanted to believe about social collapse at the end of the 20th century.
Burns and his collaborators make a convincing case. But a few nagging mysteries remain at the end of the film, despite their attempts to address them. The most glaring is why the five teens -- Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Kharey Wise -- confessed to the crime when the other 25 or 30 kids who admittedly were roaming the park that night, harassing and sometimes assaulting strangers, did not.
The explanations offered by the five wrongfully convicted men still feel inadequate, and will probably always feel inadequate, at least to anyone who has never been interrogated, and possibly bullied, for hours and deprived of sleep. (All five men appear on camera to revisit the experience, except for McCray, who consented only to voice interviews. Police and prosecutors declined to be interviewed.) The assumption that innocent people don’t confess to things they didn’t do was a big part of why the young men were convicted in the first place, and it remains a hurdle that the film never fully clears in its efforts to make us understand what went so terribly wrong.
The excuses offered by several of the men -- that they just wanted to go home and that they thought that by implicating their pals and, in some cases, themselves, it would all be over soon -- seem, well, incredibly stupid, even for naive 14- to 16-year-olds. Why didn’t any parent speak up? Some were in the room during the confession sessions. And why did no one, parent or child, call a lawyer before it was too late, an opportunity that the reading of their Miranda rights, captured on videotape, so clearly offered?
The answer is simple, as put forth by the film: People do dumb things.
But there are larger, and more interesting, questions that “The Central Park Five” raises, however obliquely. Why are we so quick to forget our own human frailty when others’ freedom is at stake? Why are we so willing to throw out the presumption of innocence, so ready to believe the police and so loathe to accept that they sometimes do coerce the weak and the credulous? Prosecutors make mistakes, too -- just like teenagers.
Maybe the answer lies elsewhere, the film suggests, in something deeper than simple racism.
There’s an awful indictment implied, but never explicitly stated, by “The Central Park Five.” Maybe what we’re really frightened of (or should be) isn’t so much packs of wilding adolescents, but the terrifying -- and all too often devastating -- flaws of our criminal justice system. They are flaws, the filmmakers hint, that could devour any of us.
It’s a harrowing thought, and one that arguably deserves deeper exploration. I only wish that “The Central Park Five” had pursued this more aggressively, without pulling punches.
Contains disturbing thematic material and brief obscenity.