Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Central Park Five

I saw The Central Park Five at the Landmark Embarcadero earlier this week.  The film screened at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival and it caught my attention.  It plays at the Roxie from December 22 to 27.

The Central Park Five; directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon & Sarah Burns; documentary; (2012)

The Central Park Five chronicles the Central Park Jogger case.  In April 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28 year old investment banker, was jogging in Central Park.  She was raped and beaten into a coma.  That same night, some neighborhood youths were roaming the park and getting into more than mischief.  By their own account, some in the group beat up a homeless man.  Responding to calls about the troublesome youths, police rounded up a number of them.  While in custody, Meili was found and police instantly tried to link the youths in custody to the rape/assault of Meili.  It was a classic "rush to judgment" if the movie is to be believed.

Five boys (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise & Yusef Salaam) eventually confessed to the crime after intense interrogation.  The boys were African American or Hispanic, poor and between the ages of 14 and 16.  Told by detectives that they could go home if they confessed their part in the rape, the boys admitted to their roles in the crime.  As Ken Burns and his co-directors show, the confessions were false and obtained under duress.  In fact, it was a perfect storm of events.  Racial tensions and high crime rates were plaguing New York City at the time.  The police released the names of the minors (contrary to policy) and the newspapers published the names (contrary to policy).

Twelve years after being convicted, another person claimed responsibility for the crime and the five men's convictions were vacated.  Their story is sad and fascinating.

Four of the five boys confessed on videotape.  DNA evidence was collected but it didn't match any of the five boys.  The victim's blood was not found on them despite the woman receiving near fatal injuries and being beaten so bad she was unrecognizable by friends and family.  The DAs contended that there was a sixth rapist whose absence did not prove the other five were not complicit.  Their confessions made no mention of a sixth man but their confessions were full of other inconsistencies which the jury overlooked.

The oldest two boys were tried as adults and Kharey Wise served the longest at nearly 12 years.  It was Wise who met Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who was serving time.  Aware that Wise was convicted for the Central Park Jogger case, Reyes felt guilty that Wise and the other four had served time for a crime they didn't commit.  A serial rapist with a conscience!  Reyes confessed and his DNA matched the sample collected from Meili.

To his credit, New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau investigated the claims and decided to recommend the five convictions be vacated.  Morgenthau was the DA at the time of the original prosecution.

Those two events are unusual in their own right.  Reyes had no incentive to tell the truth or claim responsibility.  It's odd that NYPD didn't run the DNA sample against their database but the case was full of odd and suspicious behaviors.  DAs don't like to admit they prosecuted the wrong people as it undermines confidence in the judicial system and demoralizes police and prosecutors alike.

Obviously this was a miscarriage of justice but I couldn't help but shake my head.  All five men appeared in the film (one only allowed his voice to be used).  They claimed that although their ranks swelled to 25 boys and young men that night, they personally took no part in the other crimes attributed to the rampaging mob (which the press dubbed "wilding").

I suspect the boys confessed to the rape because they were worried they would be implicated in the other less-serious crimes.  Maybe I have watched too many Law and Order episodes but everyone knows a) you don't speak to the police without a lawyer present and b) you never confess to anything, even if you are guilty but especially if you are not guilty.  As one of the lawyers said, the videotaped confessions trumped the lack of physical evidence.

This was 1989 (pre-Law and Order which is kind of incomprehensible to me).  The boys and their families were poor, uneducated and too trusting of the police.  As shown in Scenes of Crime (which I saw at the 2011 SF DocFest), people subjected to enough stress can be induced to confess to crimes they didn't commit.

I will give the reader my Criminal Defense 101 (which I hope to never use).  1) Never go to the police station.  Ask the police officer if you are under arrest.  If he says no or gives some weasel words, decline to go anywhere with the police.  Anything they have to speak about can be discussed at the present location.  If you are under arrest, they'll handcuff you and you'll have no choice about going to the police station.  2) If you are under arrest or feel uncomfortable about the way the questioning is going, state that you will not answer any more questions without your attorney present.  3) If police keep questioning you after you have invoked your right to an attorney, remain silent or keep repeating "I want to consult with my lawyer before saying anything more."

If the Central Park Five had followed this advice, they likely would not have been convicted.  I realize when cops are keeping you awake for hours at a time and screaming in your face, it's hard to retain your composure but just keep saying "I want to speak with my lawyer."

The Central Park Five is a damning indictment of our society.  There are all these safeguards in our legal system to prevent this from happening but racism, laziness, corruption, ambition and ignorance allowed five men to have their lives forever altered.

One thing I did note was that the five men came from poor families.  I wonder if they would have gone to college if they weren't convicted.  I think it unlikely.  Two of the boys couldn't make bail.  Several of them received college degrees while in prison.  That doesn't make up for wrongful imprisonment but I thought it ironic that the men went to prison to get degrees which they would have unlikely obtained otherwise.

The Central Park Five is a fascinating film which left me with a queasy feeling in my stomach.  I pitied those five boys (now men) but had a hard time feeling empathy for them.  I felt anger at the system and their families for not looking out for them but frustration with the five men for allowing themselves to be taken advantage of.  Would I have fared any better at age 14?  I don't know but age 14 is a lifetime ago for me.  I can barely remember what it's like to to be 14.  If there is one lesson from this, it's that it is never too early to teach your children lessons in civics and their constitutional rights under the law.

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