Yes, cable is still wrapping up its big week. Tonight (Sunday, April 14), National Geographic starts its richly detailed "The '80s" (see previous blog) and Showtime starts a new season for its lush "The Borgias."
Soon, however, it will be PBS' turn. "Central Park Five" on Tuesday is a compelling portait of a rush to judgment. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
In one of New York's darkest moments, a
single mindset seemed universal.
Five teens, people said, had beaten and
raped a Central Park jogger. These five were brutal.
Police, prosecutors and politicians all
said so in 1989. So did news media and the public. “It's a mess and
it doesn't speak very well about us,” said filmmaker Ken Burns.
He includes himself and other adults in
that condemnation; the next generation didn't notice. “I was 6, so
I was totally unaware of this case at the time,” said his daughter
Years later, as a Yale student, she
took a fresh look. The result became her senior thesis ... then a
book … and now “The Central Park Five,” a PBS film she made
with her dad and David McMahon.
The story shows society rushing to
judgment against black and Latino teens, only to learn 13 years later
that they hadn't done the crime. The convictions drew huge attention;
the follow-up didn't.
“We were exonerated and (did) not
receive that much” attention, said Raymond Santana Jr.
Ken Burns blames everyone, from
officials to reporters to regular people like him.
Back in '89, he had spent many of his
36 years in peaceful places – Ann Arbor, Mich., (where his dad was
an anthropology professor), Amherst, Mass. (where he studied at
Hampshire College), then doing documentaries, some on sweet subjects
– the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Shakers.
Now he was in New York, editing his
acclaimed “The Civil War.” The Central Park case stunned him.
“I, too, bought the story, wrung my hands at what I thought was the
complete collapse of our society.”
Mayor Ed Koch called it the crime of
the century; Gov. Mario Cuomo called it “the ultimate shriek of
alarm that says none of us is safe.” Donald Trump took out
full-page ads calling for the death penalty. People overlooked flaws
in the story, such as:
– There was no DNA evidence against
them. “This is an incredibly bloody crime scene,” Ken Burns said.
“There is nothing of the crime scene on the boys and nothing of the
boys on the crime scene.”
– A path in the woods indicated one
person – not five – dragging the body.
– With one exception, these five,
ages 14 to 16, didn't even seem to know each other.
– They had confessed after long
sessions with the police, Ken Burns said, but the confessions made no
logistical sense. “Frightened kids recite an unbelievable litany
(with) so many inconsistencies.”
All of that was ignored by officials, he said. “Once they
decided that the five had done it, they plowed toward that.” They
didn't even check the DNA of a man arrested for a similar rape; 13
years later, he confessed to the Central Park attack; DNA verified
The five men had already completed their sentences, but those were
vacated. There was some attention, Santana said, but nothing like the
crescendo when they were convicted. “That made us more skeptical.”
One exception, he said, was his lawyers' intern. “She did the
research. She became so outraged.”
And she changed her life. Sarah Burns said she made her senior
thesis “about this case, about the racism and the media coverage in
sort of historical context.” She scuttled her law-school plans and
turned it into a book (Random House and Vintage, 2011 and 2012) and
then a documentary.
After their sentences were vacated, the five men began a civil
suit (still pending) and were finally able to get steady work.
Santana became a personal trainer and assistant gym manager; he also
went with the movie to film festivals.
“There are people upset and people crying,” he said, “and
they just want to talk to us and they want to apologize. And overall,
the response has been very healing.”
– “The Central Park Five,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, most PBS stations