From Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” American history is replete with examples of printed words accelerating social justice. Still, from Mathew Brady’s 1862 photo exhibit of “The Dead of Antietam” to the televised fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to the cameras that brought Vietnam into American living rooms, graphic journalism has exercised unique power to open minds and hence shape history. It may do so Tuesday evening when PBS broadcasts “The Central Park Five,” a meticulous narrative of a gross miscarriage of justice.
There were abundant dystopian aspects of New York City in the 1980s, when crime, crack and AIDS produced a perfect storm of anxiety about the fraying social fabric. This was the context — a city on edge — when on April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman who worked on Wall Street went for a jog after dark in Central Park. She became a victim of what was immediately called “wilding,” a word probably unknown by the four blacks and one Hispanic, ages 14 to 16, who were arrested and charged with raping her and beating her nearly to death.
After up to 30 hours of separate interrogations by detectives who are paid to be suspicious of suspects, four of the five confessed to a crime they did not commit. Why? Watch this documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns. To see the old videotapes of the interrogations is to understand the dynamic that sent the five to prison despite the absence of evidence to bolster a rickety case that consisted entirely of those contradictory confessions.
One of the five recalls his interrogation: “They pulled my father aside. Then my father came back in the room, it was like he just changed. He was like, ‘Listen.’ He was like, ‘Tell these people what they want to hear so you can go home.’ If he just, if he just would’ve stood his ground, I would’ve told the truth. I would’ve stuck to the truth.”
People determined to see every American social problem through the lens of race are missing the fact of class: Would the fate of these five frightened, confused, exhausted and skillfully manipulated adolescents — badly represented by counsel, disastrously influenced by unsophisticated and bewildered working-class parents, and all swept up in a prosecutorial and media storm — have been different if their skin had been white? Probably not. Remember: Confident, affluent, educated, law-abiding Americans can be reduced to bewilderment by encounters with the IRS or even the local DMV.
What can be done to reduce the chances of miscarriages of justice such as the one that robbed the Central Park Five of their youth? Society’s safety depends on determined detectives and tough-minded prosecutors who have the hard-edged skills necessary for coping with nasty people. But society’s adversarial justice system depends on a countervailing cohort of public defenders more able than those on whom the Central Park Five depended. Remember, one reason Chief Justice Earl Warren was a stickler for defendants’ rights was that he had been a district attorney for 14 years and knew what went on in the backrooms of police stations.
One of the five now says: “I lost that sense of, of being youthful and missing the average things of going to school and going to the prom and just, just livin’ like average 14-, 15-year-old kid.” Another says: “I’m always behind. Those years that it took for me, I lost a lot. And even now at the age of 36, where I should be fully in a career, have a house, a car, maybe married, I don’t have any of that stuff. So I’m just here.”
Journalism, like almost every other profession relevant to this case, did not earn any honors. Until now. The only solace to be derived from this sad story is that it now is a story memorably told. A society’s justice system can improve as a result of lurches into officially administered injustice. The dialectic of injustice, then revulsion, then reform often requires the presentation of sympathetic victims to a large audience, which “The Central Park Five” does.
Finally, this recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes, but it is a government program, so . . .
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