This weekend, Ken Burns was speaking at the Smithsonian to promote two of his upcoming films, “The Address,” about Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech at Gettysburg, and “The Roosevelts,” a portrait of that famous family, when a questioner in the audience raised a rather more contemporary concern. Had Burns, who recently released a documentary about the “Central Park Five,” five boys and men who were convicted of raping and beating Trisha Mieli in Central Park in 1989, seen a recent story in the New York Times? The piece, which quotes Jonathan Moore, a lawyer who represents the men in their wrongful conviction suit against the city, extensively suggested that the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had been slow to fulfill a campaign promise de Blasio made to settle the suit. In response to the inquiry, Burns suggested that, after the attention to the film and the case last fall, it might be time to start “rattling the cages and oiling up the muskets” to bring attention to the case, which marks an ignoble twenty-fifth anniversary this coming weekend.
For Burns, a call to arms generally means a call to reasoned discussion and education, though not neutrality. “I think that we don’t always have to, in a journalistic context, invite the Flat Earth Society to our discussion about the shape of the world. We know it’s round,” he told me. “I think in the case of the Central Park Five, we know some things are true, and we can say that.” And because of the facts of the case that Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband Dave McMahon, laid out in “Central Park Five,” Burns he made a broad and vigorous case for a settlement rooted in an important idea: what is at stake is not simply justice for the Central Park Five, but broader benefits for all New Yorkers.
That is not to say that the experiences of the Central Park Five, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam, who were subject to extended interrogations and urged to implicate each other, are unimportant. Burns told me that he is deeply concerned with the Five themselves.
“I know them all. They are all good men. And they are all, in their own ways, in varying degrees and intensities, suffering the PTSD of this wrongful conviction. We’re obligated as a society to relieve their burden,” he told me. “I want them to be able to emerge from the specific gravity that has pulled them back and held them down. For a couple of the Five, it’s still as open a wound as you can possibly imagine.”
I can imagine that some New Yorkers would reject the idea that the present-day occupants of the city ought to pay for a wrong committed in the name of solving an attack that will hit the quarter-century mark on April 19. The wrongful-conviction suit the men filed against the city has itself been ongoing since 2003, and settling it could be quite expensive. Despite reports on the potential cost and the Times piece, a City Hall spokeswoman referred me to de Blasio’s previous statements, most recently in February, committing to a “swift settlement” of the case, saying there was no change in the administration’s intentions.
During our conversation, Burns suggested repeatedly that a settlement could benefit not just the Five themselves, but the cops and prosecutors who wronged them, and any New Yorkers who lack faith in the city’s criminal justice system.
“I just think a settlement is a way for everyone to heal, much in the way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa liberated victim and perpetrator alike,” he suggested. “While mistakes were made, we don’t have to make anyone wrong now. We can liberate first the Five, who were falsely accused of being criminals, but also liberate the cops and the prosecutors, who have, for some strange reason, not be able to say ‘Hey, we screwed up.’ The evidence is so clear that they did.”
A settlement by the city, Burns thinks, could allow those individuals to admit their errors, whether publicly or privately. Rather than “hold onto the view [of the Five] that they must have done something,” as Burns put it, those city officials could reconcile their own versions of events to the public record. Settling the case quickly would be a powerful demonstration that the criminal justice system in New York is capable of doing one of the most difficult tasks any organization can face: making recompense for its own errors, no matter how difficult they are to confront.
“I really think,” Burns said, “this has been a long run-on sentence of injustice that needs a period on it.”