The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five is a documentary that examines the case of teenagers, all African-American or Latino, who were falsely accused and convicted of the brutal rape of a white woman in 1989. What is revealed is very intriguing: how a huge legal case was made out of pretty much thin air, with support of the press and the public. The facts reveal that the entire police brass, DAs, politicians and especially the NYC media were complicit in railroading these youths. The prosecutors’ quest for convictions never wavered, even when there was no clear forensic evidence of proof, and no link of the five accused to DNA samples found at the scene. The film’s opening statement by Mr. Dwyer, then a journalist who wrote on the case, says it all: the case embodied frustrations regarding many social issues of the time, but Truth and Justice weren’t on the plate. I appreciated the first third of the film, which gave us a human view of these young men, who came from close-knit families that had expectations for them, as opposed to the racist picture painted by the media record. What the documentary so powerfully shows is how racist attitudes can still lead to a mob groupthink hate mentality by the public. Add in class (these were five lower-class youths), headline-grabbing politicians and law enforcement figures, along with sensationalistic media — and you have a toxic brew indeed. I remember this time period as one of the first moments I felt media overkill. The need by authorities to satisfy the media in order to look good plays into these incidents whether the frenzied media wants to admit it or not. I thought the five were guilty based on the reports I was reading. What makes this film work is that it fills in all the details of the case. If the five had competent representation and there had not been such a firestorm over the case, I doubt they would have been convicted. They were just young kids, and the fact the cops got away interrogating them without legal representation or parents present is criminal. It does make me wonder where is the political leadership that should have told the cops to find the right bad guys and take the heat for the slow police investigation, instead of find the guilty fast. I vividly recall this infamous Central Park rape, the media circus after it happened, and the sensationalist hype about 25 “wilding” youths on a rampage. But these five young men didn’t take part in any of the other lesser assaults that occurred that night. Several of them took the assaults as their queue to leave and go home — one even had a curfew. They were taken from their homes to the precinct — a fact that was NOT in the news accounts of the time. So, this doc is a refreshing counter to the incomplete record. The boys were convicted despite the existence of exculpatory evidence. This documentary enraged me that the system railroaded these teens and took their unrecoverable youthful years. Accurately portraying it in the context of the late 1980s as a proxy for the vigilante justice and racially-tinged fear of crime that engulfed New York and the nation by extension. What was missing for me was an explanation by the cops – I’d love to hear their excuses for what they did to these young boys. Eventually modern forensics exonerated them with the help the actual perpetrator who eventually confessed. Mayor Koch seemed unfazed by the injustice — and NYPD are criminal in their refusal to acknowledge that they forced those confessions. It is infuriating that cops and prosecutors can get away with stuff like this, without repercussions. Cops and prosecutors who railroad innocent people and ruin lives should do jail time. Prosecutor Fairstein and her minions are seen as either zealots or headline seekers, pursuing verdicts that would appease the outraged public. Fairstein’s behavior seemed so outrageous that in the 1993 appeals decision on Salaam’s case then appellate court judge Vito Titone blasted the entire interrogation process: “I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old’s confession. Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn’t care.” The Central Park 5 deserve to win their civil lawsuit against the City of New York. The underlying racism and ‘Old Boy’ networks persist in this country. This documentary is spot on as far as looking at all sides of the issue and the travesty. A very important documentary of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in modern American history. Very well done. The film captures that period in New York City vividly. Riveting is the word I would use. When I heard famous documentary maker Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah were involved in producing this film, I immediately wanted to see it. Documentary 2012 NR 1hr 58m.

(Linda Fairstein is the “famed” prosecutor best known for her involvement in this Central Park Jogger case. As a result, she went on to become an author of bestselling mystery paperbacks, but the jacket-copy version of her career used to tout her might not sell books these days. Fairstein was making literary hay from her cases, and I had read and enjoyed the novels of Fairstein till now.)

(Michelle Alexander is author of the book “The New Jim Crow” about mass incarceration of minority youths. This book coupled with the true story behind the Central Park Five should give anyone pause if asked to evaluate our criminal justice system. Another example of an absolute outrage in our criminal INjustice system. This happens more than people know, and as this film points out the worst part is that there are no consequences or changes even when the truth comes out. If anything, the careers of the prosecutors and law enforcers just grow without any disruption or punishment. And it happens almost every day in America. With the work of volunteers in The Innocence Project, hundreds of people have been exonerated by DNA evidence. Thank God there are people who care about justice, not just convictions.)

(For more on this case of injustice, see the website


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