TV on DVD: 'The Central Park Five' Retells How Teens' Lives Were Ruined by Wrongful Conviction
Filmmaker Sarah Burns spent a decade investigating the case of the 1989 Central Park jogger rape and the roles that racial tension, the media, a violent city, and aggressive law enforcement played in wrongly convicting five boys of the crime.
And it all came down to a fight over the TV. One of the many extraordinary details in "The Central Park Five" is the coincidental meeting that led to the exoneration of five teenagers whose lives had been upended when they were accused of and jailed for a crime they didn't commit.
"Five," which is airing on PBS this month and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, recounts the case of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, the titular black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of the brutal beating and rape of a white woman jogging in Central Park in 1989.
Wise, the oldest of the teenagers, had a run-in in the TV room at Rikers Island with a fellow inmate named Matias Reyes in 1989. Years later, they found themselves imprisoned together again, and Reyes apologized to Wise for their earlier disagreement. Wise told him not to worry about it -- "We're here … it's not going to free either of us … don't worry about it," Wise says he told Reyes -- and Reyes was so affected by Wise's response that he decided to confess a secret: he was responsible for the vicious attack that nearly killed Central Park jogger Trisha Meili, not Wise and the rest of the five. They were exonerated as a result in 2002, but not until they had served between six and nearly 12 years in jail.
Watch the trailer for the film:
Sarah Burns began talking to the five in 2003, while she was interning at a law firm that represented the men in a civil suit against the city of New York after their exonerations. The case stuck with her after she graduated from Yale, and her contact with McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise continued as she wrote a book, "The Central Park Five," in 2011. The book turned into the documentary, and as she directed, wrote, and produced "The Central Park Five" with Ken Burns (her father) and David McMahon (her husband), the project helped turn filmmaking into, she jokes, the family business.
Burns talked to Yahoo! TV about the documentary, the many incredible details that unfolded throughout the Central Park Five's legal journey, the all-too-frequent occurrence of false confessions, audiences' reactions to the film and the five, and her next project, in which she and her collaborators will tackle a Burns family favorite.
We saw last week the reaction to the bombing in Boston, how people were demanding answers right away. Any time public safety is an issue, obviously the pressure is on for law enforcement to find out who's responsible. That seemed to play a big role in "The Central Park Five" case, too.
Definitely. I think certainly the police had to know immediately that this was going to be a big story, that there would be a lot of attention on them and the work they were doing. That pressure is there immediately. Then from the media standpoint, too, people want answers. The police have just served up this narrative that's going to really electrify people, and so great, we're going to sell papers. That's the attitude, and the sense that you should really check it out before you print something was lost. You had most of these media outlets taking what the police were telling them in this press conference and just printing it, with none of their own research.
I think what you saw in the Boston Marathon case is a related version of that, which is this effort to scoop, to have the information as fast as possible … [and] you get people, respected news outlets, giving out bad information. And it seems like today … I don't know how relevant this is to the "Central Park" story, but it feels like today there's less concern about getting things wrong in that way. It's like, "Oh, well. We got it wrong. We'll retract it," instead of, "This is a really terrible thing when it happens that we have to retract something or make a correction. We should aim for that to never happen." There used to be that attitude in the media. I feel like today, as we get more into this 24 hour news cycle, and everything's online … you can go to Twitter and [get news] instantaneously, but without the same kind of emphasis on fact checking.