THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, Riveting, Attention Grabbing and Brutally Accurate

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THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, a gripping documentary that details the travesty of justice that left six lives shattered and a judicial system in question recently previewed during the American Film Institute Film Festival in Hollywood, California.

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, produced, written and directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, tells the true story of five wrongly convicted teenagers and traumatic years that followed leading up to the reversal of their convictions.

April 19, 1989, an unseasonably balmy night, the first real summer night in the spring of the year, brought Manhattanites from all walks of life into their beloved Central Park; young lovers, couples, joggers and, yes, even trouble makers made their way into the park to enjoy the evening.

Most, who walked in the night air, would make it into their upper west or east side apartments safe and secure, all unaware of the gripping horror that had occurred only a few short hours before.

A woman, clinging to life, was discovered, partially nude, brutally beaten, violently rape, her running clothes pulled around her hands, comatose, suffering from hypothermia and blood loss, she was transported to a local hospital. She would become known, for decades, to the media and the world, as The Central Park Jogger.

Five black and Hispanic kids were also in the park that night, hanging out with a group from the north end, near 110th Street and close to the Upper West Side project houses. They entered the park joining up with another group until the “gang” reached about twenty rowdy, intimidating, teenagers.

With appearance by former New York City Mayor’s Ed Koch and David Dinkins as well as local journalist Jim Dwyer, Natalie Byfield and LynNell Hancock, along with the Reverend Calvin Butts and historian Steven Wilder, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE offers more than a harrowing account of the intersection of these lives. It explains the racial tensions in Manhattan, an in-your-face, right-here, this-close city. Manhattan is the spectrum of diversity and truly a dichotomous society with the white, wealthy, Wall Street persona and the black/Hispanic poor, uptown street thug. Both are accurate descriptions of the inhabitants in the city that never sleeps.

That day, April 20, 1989, those two worlds would clash in the worst possible scenarios, a young white Investment Banker and the street crime thugs, and other than running into a crazed homeless person, that is probably one’s worst nightmare.  When the world woke that morning, the news would split the city.

Swift Justice?

After aggressive interrogation by the NYPD, that lasted thirty-six hours, the five teenagers, clearly not naïve and still not aware of the cruelty of the system, had made confessions. The woman, still unknown, was not expected to live. The brutality so causally described without remorse or concern by the teens made it impossible for a blood thirsty media and a deeply concerned public not to feel satisfied with the swiftness of the arrests.

Having seen the confessions the first time around, it is important to stress they did not appear coerced, in fact the confessions looked genuine, an actual recounting of the outings of a group of “wilding” thugs.

What follows is truly hard to describe as these teenagers, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam, tried to explain they were forced, coerced, lied to by the NYPD, told they could leave, free, could go home with no worries, if they just “helped out” and made the confessions.  

And if one hell wasn’t bad enough, the judicial process began with full guilt already rendered, pre-trial, the public calmed, the media prepared and readied for a sensational season of sales and the five . . . . well they might as well have been declared dead to all, they received their due penalty. Case closed.

The Manhattan DA’s Go to Trial

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE also reveals a judicial process quick to judge, a corrupt system, and the unspoken racial system of justice.  The documentary put forth an opinion and presented the facts in such a way that it appeared as if it were the status quo to arrest, put on trial, and see a case through to a conclusion even if the standard of evidence was not present simply due to the ethnicity of the alleged perpetrators and then shrugged off cavalierly with an “oh well if not this crime they have or will certainly commit another.”  As it was, there was no DNA evidence to tie any of the arrested to the crime. With a one-in-three trillion chance of error the missing DNA was crucial, and the documentary explained the same.

Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan DA, at the time had the toughest sex crimes prosecutors in the country with Linda Fairstein and Nancy E. Ryan. They were brilliant, zealous, diligent and thankfully felt committed and impacted by the brutality associated with sexual violence and wanted to send a strong message. They wanted prosecution for the Central Park Jogger before they knew her name, before they knew anything about her, before she became familiar.

And we all did. The public, the media, the world wanted prosecution for the violence inflicted on this woman. The idea that a street thug, an animal, acting alone or in concert, could randomly decide to destroy, to savagely and brutally beat, rape, with the intent to murder because the weather was nice, or her race, her decision to run in the park after dark, or her this or that or one could fill any reason in the blank was beyond comprehension. We wanted to be safe, to feel safe and the swift prosecution of this crime proved that we were. Or so it seemed.

The Truth Finally Comes Out

Suddenly years later, an inmate, serial rapist and career criminal, Matias Reyes’s, met one of the five in an upstate prison, began talking about how in Riker’s he was okay to him and as the two exchanged their details Matias made a startling confession of his own: These five convicted could not have committed the crime as he so many years later was able to recount each grisly detail as if it were tied to his soul. Soon The Central Park Jogger case was again in the media. Matias Reyes provided the crucial and missing DNA evidence which matched.

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE served their complete sentences between six and thirteen years before Matias Reyes confessed to acting alone in the vicious, violent heinous attack.

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE has been an official selection in the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and AFI, The American Film Institute Film Festival.

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE opens everywhere November 30th, 2012.

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