(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.
"They were not really understanding what the whole thing was about. Some of them were tricked into believing that if you just say this, we'll let you go home," Salaam said. "Everybody came in there and maintained their innocence, up until the fact that they couldn't take it anymore and thought that it was easier to tell the lie so that they could get out of there and stop it than to continue on telling the truth."
The film lays out how these five teenagers confessed to and were convicted of a crime that they did not even witness, let alone participate in. "That was the big mystery to us," McMahon said.
While the film hints at probable civil rights violations, the movie makers do not consider themselves activists. Instead they say they are merely filmmakers who create the vehicle through which the audience can see the story. So far, Burns says, The Central Park Five has been well-received at screenings. "People are outraged, they're saddened, they're angry, they feel guilty," Burns said.
"There has not been a screening where someone does not get up and say, 'I just want to say that I believed reports in 1989 and assumed you were guilty and I am so sorry,' " McMahon said.
Salaam, as well as some of the other CP5, have attended those screenings. He acknowledges that when he finally earned his freedom, the public's reaction then doesn't seem to match the outrage now. "There was so much coverage in 1989 and 1990 to convince the public that we were actually guilty of this crime that we didn't commit," said Salaam. "When the truth came out in 2002, nobody really covered it the way that they covered it back then."
In the film, the Rev. Calvin Butts even admits: "A lot of the people in the black community went along with the confession. Many of us were frightened by our own children. Many of us had been pushed around, raped, burglarized, purse snatched, often by young black men."
The Central Park jogger, Trisha Meili, who endured a 12-day coma and was unable to testify during the original trials, declined to participate in the documentary. The filmmakers also requested interviews with the detectives and prosecutors who worked the case, but were rebuffed. They did, however, hear from the City of New York in the form of a subpoena for outtakes from the film, which they are vigorously fighting.
Salaam and the other four men filed a civil lawsuit in 2003, seeking $50 million in damages. It's something the city has been fighting ever since. "When you think about it from the perspective of race, this is almost like them trying to punish Ken Burns and company for doing such a tremendous job. They didn't do anything but tell the truth," Salaam said. He contends the city is purposely dragging its feet in regard to settling the suit. "I am sure that they probably want us to give up — or pass away."
No matter what happens with the lawsuit, Salaam claims that they have won an even bigger battle, having the truth come out in the form of a film that all the world can see. Burns said her hope is that the documentary opens a dialogue. "We're in a postracial society, people say, and I think that this story and others like it are reminders that we're not," she concluded. "We still have work to do, and I hope that this can help to start a conversation about that."
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.