Five young men were arrested and convicted of assault and rape in 1989 in one of New York City’s most infamous cases. The five men implicated in the Central Park Jogger case were innocent.
The case is the center of the new documentary, The Central Park Five, by filmmaker Ken Burns, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The five juveniles convicted in the case, all whom were black or Hispanic, were sentenced to prison despite no DNA evidence tying any of them to the rape. It wasn’t until 2002 when a convicted rapist and murderer confessed to the crime that the five young men were freed and their convictions vacated.
“You can see very easily how, when you get stuck in some false narrative as the cops and the prosecutors did, the truth is a train leaving the station, and your train is going in a different direction and the media is demanding [answers] and not questioning it…You realize that five human beings were expendable,” Burns said on The Cycle Wednesday afternoon. “What our film was an attempt to do was to listen to them and ask them, ‘Who are you? Where did you come from? What happened that night?’”
Burns discussed the different aspects to the case which made it so compelling to follow in the years after the conviction. The five men had chosen to confess to the crime and implicate one another, despite the fact that none of them had done it.
“We look at it from a distance, from a remove, and we say, ‘Well, I would have never done that,’” Burns explained about the confessions. “But we weren’t 14, 15, or 16 years old, we weren’t in intense interrogations for upwards of 30 hours by the finest New York City has to offer…After awhile, you think, ‘Well, maybe if other people are implicating me, I’ll implicate them, and then I’ll get to go home.’ It was a circular firing squad.”
Burns and The Cycle hosts discussed the lessons learned. The case was a test of the justice system that failed, and it is important for the city and the media to acknowledge the mistakes made in wrongfully convicting the five.
“It’s good for all of us to put a period on the end of this thing. Justice delayed is also justice denied, and it’s all because they’re unable to admit a mistake.” Burns said.