Disturbing case of the Central Park Five

Documentary and NYC screening Q&A explore questions raised by wrongful rape convictions.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Central Park Five
The Central Park Five
The DOC NYC Closing Night Gala film The Central Park Five, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, is a chilling exposé on a rape committed on April 19, 1989 in New York City's Central Park, which saw five teenagers from Harlem arrested and later wrongfully convicted. They spent between 6 and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he alone had committed the crime, leading to their convictions being overturned.

The term "wilding" took off in the media like wildfire and was used to send shockwaves of fear through the population of New York City. Its definition entered the lexicon as "the activity by a gang of youths of going on a protracted and violent rampage in a public place, attacking people at random".

Beth Dembitzer introduced the screening <em>Photos from Q&A: Anne-Katrin Titze
Beth Dembitzer introduced the screening Photos from Q&A: Anne-Katrin Titze
Last night's screening with the filmmakers and invited scholars took place at New America NYC and was introduced by Beth Dembitzer from Arena Pictures. The evening began with a videotaped message by co-director Ken Burns wishing he could be there.

The panel included: Raymond Santana, one of the wrongfully convicted Central Park Five, co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Crystal N Feimster, Yale University Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies and the American Studies Program, and Saul Kassin, Professor of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"I wish I looked into it more," confesses Jim Dwyer, one of the reporters on the case for the New York Times in the film.

Feimster, who focuses on narratives of rape and lynching, asked the panel, what we can take away from what we see occurred to the Central Park five.

Sarah Burns warned to not put the story in the past. "We cannot look at it as a product of its time, just write it off." It is still very much a problem.

Raymond Santana focuses now on educating kids. He was 14 when he was arrested for a crime he did not commit. The label, he knows he has to live with for the rest of his life, "now becomes a positive," he said last night. "there are a lot of lessons in the film."

David McMahon speaks more about the power of storytelling, how the media "made them agents in a narrative created in the middle of the 1980s tabloid wars." The front pages, the mileage that could be wrung from the story was all that mattered.

Feimster brought up one of the core issues the film addresses, that of false confesssions.

l - r Crystal N Feimster, Yale University, Raymond Santana, co-director Sarah Burns, Saul Kassin, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, co-director David McMahon
l - r Crystal N Feimster, Yale University, Raymond Santana, co-director Sarah Burns, Saul Kassin, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, co-director David McMahon
Saul Kassin, who specialises in the field of false confessions, said that we seem to "understand everything else better than that." He added: "DNA is trumped by confession. Confession trumps innocence." What he hopes can be taken from this case is "mandatory videotaping of the entire process", which to this day does not exist. The movie makes it clear that the promise of telling the kids, "You can go home," after hours of interrogation was a massive factor in their invented confessions that did neither match the facts of the rape, nor each other's tellings.

"How can five kids participate in a rape and leave no DNA behind?" Santana asked and remembered that one of the lowest points was when he saw the lawyers laughing together, on a bench across the room. Was his life a game to them? The movie mentions the detectives celebrating the "home run for law enforcement" at Elaine's, while we hear former mayor Ed Koch's voice: "They got 'em. Thank God, they got 'em." Another clip from the archive shows Donald Trump demanding the death penalty.

Beth pointed out that Sarah has been working on this story for ten years, to "set the record straight and start a conversation."

Raymond Santana
Raymond Santana
Saul Kassin also said that to help us understand false confessions given to the police, tape them, even see how and when "they define the beginning."

Why is it that nobody stopped the wrongful persecution? How much of the delay in justice being served is the underlying racism? These were some of the questions from the audience.

The "media not only failed, but became the wolf pack," said a commenter towards the end of the evening from the audience. The innocence of the Central Park Five did not get the media attention their presumed guilt did. The media were not questioning themselves and their role in making this story what it is. The police department did not comment for the film, their "institutional protectionism" becomes part of the narrative.

DOC NYC The Central Park Five screenings Thursday, November 15 9:15pm at SVA Theater (in addition to previously scheduled sold out Closing Night Gala 7pm show) at SVA Theater

Scheduled to appear: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon, and all five members of the Central Park Five (first time together since the arraignment).

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