Revisiting the Central Park Jogger Case

Exonerated Yusef Salaam talks about a film on the infamous 1989 rape that shook New York City.

Defendant Yusef Salaam walks into courthouse flanked by police in The Central Park Five (Daily News/Getty Images)
Defendant Yusef Salaam walks into courthouse flanked by police in The Central Park Five (Daily News/Getty Images)

(The Root) — In one of New York City’s highest-profile criminal cases, a group of five black and Latino teenagers (all 16 or younger) — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam — were arrested and convicted for the brutal rape of a white jogger that occurred in Central Park on April 19, 1989.

The incident shook a city that was already sagging under heavy urban malaise, with high rates of petty crime and murder. The only problem was that the youth were later proven to be innocent. Another man, Matias Reyes, 31, admitted to the crime in 2002. DNA evidence corroborated his confession. The five men were soon exonerated, but only after spending many years behind bars. In a new documentary titled The Central Park Five, which opens in New York on Nov. 23, filmmakers Sarah Burns; her husband, David McMahon; and Burns’ father, the Oscar-winning director Ken Burns, revisit the details of that fateful night and how New York Police Department investigators and court officials handled the evidence.

The idea for the documentary came from a book by Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes. Her interest in the case was piqued when she met two of the teens while working for a lawyer in 2003, the year after they were exonerated. “The book spends a lot more time exploring some of the context for this case and some of the details of the trial,” she told The Root. “But the film, I think, has a great advantage, the ability to share with an audience directly these interviews with the five, where you get to meet them and get to know them and see some of the emotion of them telling their story … They had not really told their story before, so I think this was both difficult and somewhat cathartic for them.”

Salaam, now approaching 40, agreed. “This film gave us our voices back, by giving us the opportunity to tell our own story,” he told The Root. “It was almost like a slap in the face to have folks not even know the real story of what happened.”

The film can be hard to watch at times as the men recount the details of their police interrogations and their ultimate false confessions. According to the film’s narrative, police detectives were anxious to solve the crime, and prosecutors were hungry for a conviction to send a message to residents that their city wasn’t going to be overrun by what was perceived to be elements from its seedier side. Media attention added to the push toward quick resolution, as the youths were demonized as “wilding young people.”

“To some extent it’s understandable where they started, but after that … the evidence did not suggest that [the teens] were involved,” McMahon told The Root. “When you put the video statements up against each other and they are completely contradictory, none of them match in terms of the facts of the crime, and they’re missing so many details. You wonder why they didn’t begin anew, and maybe it was a kind of pressure to get these guys.”

The case fanned racial tensions in an already divided city. A younger, heavier Al Sharpton can be seen in the film leading protests. Burns says thatwhile the scene may be from 1989, things are not so different now. “Trayvon Martin is an excellent example of that,” she said. “These underlying problems that lead to all these situations are the suspicions about and assumptions that people make about minorities, particularly black and Latino teenage boys. That’s the same thing we see then and now.”

Salaam knows this firsthand. He was the only one of the five who did not sign a written confession or make a videotaped admission. That was because his mother showed up at the New York police precinct where he was being detained and stopped the interrogation. It was the false confessions of his co-defendants that put him in prison, but he does not blame them.