BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- History is littered with examples of innocents who were punished for crimes they didn’t commit.
You don’t have to think very hard to remember someone who made headlines for an atrocious act only to find out years later the person didn’t do it.
When such a thing happens, we usually shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s too bad,” and try not to think about the destruction of the wrongly accused’s life. You might think, “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
But there is something you should do: Take a couple of hours and peer inside the courageous survival of a group of people who went through such a nightmare. Watch Ken Burns’ new film “The Central Park Five,” which will air on PBS stations across the country on April 16.
If you’ve never heard of the Central Park Five, you were either very young or not paying attention in the spring of 1989 when the case of the Central Park Jogger -- New York City’s de facto crime of the century -- played out. A young white woman was brutally beaten and raped in the city’s iconic park. Not long after, five youths -- four blacks and one Latino -- who happened to be in another part of the 800-acre park, were branded as marauding rapists.
This film puts you in the middle of cosmopolitan-yet-gritty New York City at the end of the ‘80s. It walks you in the shoes of the millions of people who were outraged and terrified over this one instance of violence because it so perfectly encapsulated every fear they had about urban decay, the erosion of common decency and the rise of a generation of “wilding” teens who could not be tamed.
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, ages 14 to 16, paid for all the sins of a city that had to admit to itself that even its rich parts weren’t very safe places to live. In the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, the nightmare forced some parents to acknowledge that they really were frightened of their own children.
The five underwent 24 to 30 continuous hours of aggressive interrogation by seasoned homicide detectives who promised to let them go home if they’d only confess. They were denied water, food and sleep.
These were not boys with records of causing trouble. They came from from intact, albeit poor, families who had never before interacted with the criminal justice system and had no idea how to navigate the situation they found themselves in. Four of the five boys confessed on videotape to a beating and rape they didn’t commit.
The five served their entire sentences, from six to 13 years, and even though serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime in 2002, they’ve still spent the last decade trying to reclaim their good names.
“This is our most journalistic film to date,” said Burns, eager to put the names of his co-directors, David McMahon and daughter Sarah Burns, author of “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding” out in front of his own. “We took our voices out of it and practiced huge conscious restraint -- we didn’t want this to be a one-sided advocacy piece filled with huge neon signs and pointing arrows and emotional descriptors in the narrative text. We were just so anxious to be utterly fair and let the story tell itself. You can come into this film saying ‘I know they’re guilty’ and you get to listen and make up your own mind.”
We have that luxury -- an extravagance that even the jury in the criminal case didn’t have. Here’s my own neon sign for you as you watch the film: Look for Ronald Gold, juror No. 5, who was convinced of the defendants’ innocence throughout deliberations, yet admits that in the end he was so tired and under so much pressure to say they were culpable that he agreed to the guilty verdict just so he could go home.
“The Central Park Five” is not a movie you should watch to learn about something that happened a quarter-century ago. It’s one you should study to identify what might keep us from quickly blaming the most vulnerable the next time a horror causes the public to call for immediate retribution.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group