Though New York City crime rates have plummeted in recent years, during the 1980s, the metropolis had a well-deserved reputation for criminal activity. A few cases were so stunning and heinous that they made national headlines. An example of this type of crime was the case of the Central Park Jogger, which is still making headlines today. It is such a landmark case that documentarian Ken Burns of “Baseball” and “The Civil War” fame has turned it into a film titled “The Central Park Five.”
The case of the Central Park Jogger happened on April 19, 1989, when a 28-year-old investment banker was getting her daily exercise in the park. She was brutally attacked, raped, and beaten so badly that one of her eyes would not stay inside its socket. She wasn’t found until four hours after the attack ended, bleeding and suffering from hypothermia due to the cold morning air. Doctors at the hospital where she was taken gave her little chance of living.
While the jogger, who was later identified as Trisha Meili, was clinging to life, police began an investigation into the crime, suspecting a group from one of several teenage gangs that frequented the park. The gangs generally attacked and robbed people, with several crimes happening the night before and the morning of the jogger attack. Despite the fact that none had previously had a reputation for rape or sexual assault, the police rounded up several suspects. They would ultimately charge Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, and Raymond Santana for the brutal crime. All five boys were under the age of 16 at the time, which means they would only be tried as juveniles. Four of the boys were African American and one was Latino.
As Meili miraculously recovered, it was clear that she would not be any help during the investigation because of her injuries. She was beaten so savagely that she had no recollection of the attack, or of any events a full hour before the attack occurred. Therefore, police had to build their own case, which hinged on confessions that all the boys except Salaam signed. After two very public and lengthy trials, all five were convicted of the crime.
Years later, a man who was already in jail for several crimes confessed to attacking Meili on that fateful morning. Upon further investigation, DNA evidence linked him to the attack. This shed doubt on the guilt of the five, who had since rescinded their confessions, citing coercion, intimidation, and fear as the reasons why they had confessed. After the District Attorney compared the confessions, it was found that they were not consistent with one another and could very well be faked. Lawsuits against the city are currently pending from three of the five, with no admission of coercion or intimidation on the part of the New York Police Department or District Attorney’s office.
Burns decided to make the documentary because he believed the case was a huge injustice that was indicative of the current state of law enforcement and politics in the United States. Like many of his past documentaries, he uses a mix of archival footage and current interviews to paint a picture of five young boys who had their youth taken away from them due to a crime they didn’t commit.
Some are saying that this could be the biggest film of Burns’ storied career as a director. Sure, his documentaries like “Jazz” and “Thomas Jefferson” are thought to be quintessential pieces on those topics, but “Central Park Five” is different. It is a modern tale that is still being told today, as the city refuses to admit guilt or pay out damages to any of the five victims. The timeliness of the story sets it apart from the other Burns documentaries and makes it a little more significant.
Having been nominated for two Academy Awards and a slew of Emmys, Burns is arguably one of the highest-profile documentarians working today. With that kind of name recognition, anything he does is likely to draw much more attention than most documentaries do. For this reason, “The Central Park Five” will get more notoriety and ticket buyers than if almost anyone else had filmed it instead. The publicity will shine a light not only on Burns and the film, but also on the five wrongfully convicted teenagers who are at the heart of the film. This film will have a large impact in the documentary world as well as society itself, which is why it may just be the most significant film of Burns’ career.