Anatomy of a wrongful conviction: The Central Park Five, a new documentary film

In 1989, a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park was brutally beaten and raped. Five black and Latino teenagers were arrested and charged with this heinous crime, which became a symbol of a society supposedly overrun by depraved and remorseless “wolfpacks” of black and brown youths. Although the five boys knew nothing about the attack, New York City police coerced them into “confessing” to a crime they did not commit. DNA evidence recovered from the victim pointed to a single rapist, whose DNA profile did not match any of the boys’. No other physical evidence tied the boys to the crime. On the basis of their false confessions, the “Central Park Five” were convicted and spent years in prison. Finally, many years later, the real rapist came forward and admitted his guilt. The DNA evidence proved this man, who had committed other rapes, was guilty of the crime.

A powerful new documentary, The Central Park Five, explores this miscarriage of justice. The film lays out, in chilling detail, the sequence of events that led to the boys’ arrest, confessions and convictions. Using extensive video footage from the era, along with interviews that each of the five subjects gave to the filmmakers, the documentary convincingly answers a question that arises in many wrongful conviction cases: why would someone confess to a crime he didn’t commit? The film shows how the police brought overwhelming pressure to bear on the boys—naïve and innocent 14, 15 and 16 year olds—who were held in custody in some cases more than 24 hours, without a lawyer, as police threatened and cajoled them and falsely promised them that could go home if they just confessed and implicated the others. With the confessions secured, police and prosecutors turned a blind eye to substantial evidence—the negative DNA results, the lack of any of the victim’s blood on any of the boys, the contradictory and implausible nature of the confessions themselves—that should have alerted them to the possibility that they had arrested and charged the wrong people. Amid the racially charged public furor to punish whoever did this horrible deed, the film shows, police and prosecutors abandoned a dispassionate search for the truth and a proper regard for the suspects’ constitutional rights.

In 2002, the real rapist’s detailed confession and positive DNA match conclusively established the Five’s innocence. The rape was committed by one person; the jogger was not attacked by a group of boys. While the Central Park Five were in prison for crimes they did not commit, the real rapist continued to commit crimes.

Although their convictions were vacated, the Five will never recover their stolen youth and continue to struggle—as so many wrongfully convicted individuals do—with “life after innocence.” They also continue to fight for justice in their civil rights lawsuit against the police officers, which the City of New York has—heartlessly and cynically, in my opinion—fought tooth and nail for nearly a decade.

I had the privilege of working on the lawsuit not long after it was filed in 2003, when I was an attorney at Moore & Goodman in New York. Sarah Burns, one of the filmmakers and the author of the book upon which the documentary is based, was a paralegal in our office. It is now almost 2013. Although the film is not an advocacy piece and barely mentions the civil lawsuit, I hope that its persuasive and moving portrayal of injustice puts pressure on the City to resolve the lawsuit and compensate the Five for their profound losses.

The film is currently showing at the Kendall Square Cinema—for a short run, so see it soon.

-David Milton

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