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.
See the media response to the Central Park Jogger case:
Why did you decide to turn the story into a documentary after you wrote the book "The Central Park Five"?
I think film ends up being such a powerful medium for this story because you get to see them. You get to see how young they were and where they are now. But most importantly, you get to meet them. You get to know them in a different way than I could ever achieve in the book. Even having interviewed them and quoting them and all of that. But getting to actually be in the audience and sit there and watch this film and hear a story from them in their own words, I think, allows you to relate to them in a different way. And that was a huge part of what we were trying to do with this film.
These guys, these kids, were so dehumanized by the coverage. The attention on this in 1989 and '90 … nobody was looking at who they were, what their families were like. Not really. I mean, not seriously. And so this is hopefully a bit of a corrective … they're all different. These are individuals. They're humans, and they have different personalities and different thoughts, and they've experienced this in different ways. And hopefully we get to understand some of that by really meeting them.
NEXT: Burns on the guys' shocking false confessions...
One of the many fascinating aspects of the "Central Park Five" case is the guys' false confessions. It's shocking to watch them making these statements and to see the process behind what led to them, but false confessions are more of a common occurrence than we might think, no? Especially in circumstances like this one?
I think so. And I think it's easy to sit there from your home or wherever you are comfortable and say, "Well, I would never confess to something I hadn't done." That's where the jurors are coming from in a case like this. "Well, they confessed. What more do you need to know? Why would anyone confess?" They look at these video statements, and [the guys] don't appear to be under duress. They don't have bruises on them or something that would indicate that they've been beaten into giving these statements. And so, people go, "Well, they said they did it. What more information do we need?"
I think that's really dangerous, because the fact is we know that this happens. This is not an isolated case here. There have been more than 300 DNA exonerations since we started being able to use DNA to exonerate people in the early '90s, by the Innocence Project and others like it. The Innocence Project, in studying those exonerations, has found that in a quarter of them, a false confession contributed. And now that's only the tip of the iceberg, because we're just talking about DNA exonerations. These are cases where there is DNA available to be tested or retested, which is obviously a fraction of cases. And so if you just use that as a jumping-off point, it gives you some sense of how many people must still be in jail, wrongly imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit. And likely how many false confessions have put them there.
As you said, when you hear about their confessions, you have doubts about their assertions later that they were manipulated into making them, but when you see it unfold in the film, it makes more sense.
Right. I mean, the police are good at manipulating, really, in a number of different ways. And so they start out by keeping them and their families in the dark about what this is really about and what kind of trouble they might actually be in. So there's not so much of a sense of "Uh-oh, let's ask for a lawyer or not talk to them." They're thinking, "OK, well, they just want to ask me some questions." And then it gets scary. I mean, this is just a by-the-book version of interrogation … the Reid technique. This is how you interrogate. Basically, it's a version of the sort of good cop/bad cop cliché you see on TV, except it starts with the bad cop, who convinces you that your situation is dire, that there's all this evidence against you and that you are in really deep trouble. And that no matter how many times you tell them you don't know what they're talking about or you didn't do anything, they're not going to listen. And so you get to a point where you are desperate and terrified, and then you get a good cop who can make confessing seem like a way out of this terrible situation, who can be sympathetic, who can offer this as a kind of helpful, mitigating thing. And that's basically what happened.
Richardson and Santana discuss the manipulation of their interrogations:
If Matias Reyes had never come forward, is there any reason to believe that anything else would have happened that would have led to the five's exoneration?
No. We would not be talking about this. All of the evidence was available then. So this isn't one of these situations like in a classic Innocence Project case, where you can say, "They weren't able to test the DNA back then. Now this person's saying they're innocent, and there's DNA we can go back and check." The Innocence Project, I don't think, would have taken this case on, because the DNA had been tested then, and they'd still been convicted. There wasn't new evidence to test. I mean, except to compare Reyes. But again, there's nothing new there, right? And nobody suspected Reyes.
Listen to Reyes's confession:
And it was really just a coincidental meeting that sparked Reyes's confession?
Yeah. I mean, it's extraordinary. And it's scary, too, when you think about how many people must be languishing in prison who are innocent and who don't have either DNA to be tested or the Innocence Project or others like them to help. Or some kind of incredible coincidence [like what] happened here, where you have Korey bumping into Reyes first in 1989 in Riker's, and then 13 years later again in prison, and having this conversation and the way that Korey responds. I mean, who knows? Maybe if Reyes had come up to him and apologized and Korey had told him to get lost, [Reyes] wouldn't have had the same inclination.
NEXT: Burns on a pending civil case and why four of the men chose to remain in New York City...
You attempted on multiple occasions to talk to the police and the prosecutors involved, and none of them would talk. There's a civil case pending, but do you think there are other reasons they wouldn't talk?
Well, they said it was because of the civil case. I mean, they could have spoken to us. But they were advised not to, and they wouldn't. In some cases, they have made comments elsewhere, so it's not that there's a true prohibition. And so I wonder to what extent the problem is also that they don't have answers to the questions we would have asked them. But there's still a side of this [case] that's really invested in those original verdicts, people involved in the case who not only are protecting themselves from this lawsuit, but who seem to really believe that the five are guilty, that the convictions were good, that the police did and the prosecutors did great work. That's out there for sure.
Speaking of the civil case, it was filed in 2003, and a decade later it seems no closer to going to trial or being settled. Shouldn't it be somewhat clear-cut? Why has it taken a decade to get no movement in the case?
It's a great question, and I don't know. I think there are a few possible things at work. There's the fact that people involved in this case, many of whom are defendants in that civil suit, who are involved in the original convictions, are still invested in that original verdict, as I said. To what extent those people and others who are following that agenda are putting pressure not to settle, believing that even a settlement would be some kind of passive admission of their wrongdoing that they can't stomach … I don't know. And it also may just be and I'm sure it is, in part about the money, though they're expending considerable resources here defending this case over 10 years. That's not free. But they seem tireless in their efforts to make this thing go slowly. It's a lot of hours they've put into this already.
Then I think the other question, and who knows about this, is how much they believe that they can prevail at a trial. They certainly seem to be planning to go to trial. They won't even sit down and discuss a settlement. There's literally never been, that I know of, a settlement discussion. This isn't a situation where they can't come to terms. They won't even talk about it.
The civil case drags on for you, too. The city subpoenaed you for your materials from the movie, and the judge ruled against them. But that's not the end of it, is it?
They appealed to the district court judge who's overseeing the case. We feel confident about our chances there. I think the law is on our side, but my understanding, and I am not a lawyer, is that even when the district court judge decides, they could choose to appeal again to the second circuit. This is awfully, incredibly costly for us, too, to defend ourselves from this, and it's an important issue that we're not going to back down from … not even just about this case, but I think on behalf of documentary filmmakers and journalists in general, it just feels like an important cause. And we've gotten a lot of great support from people in those communities, who feel like we need to take a stand here.
Does it surprise you that four of the men came back to New York City, and continue to live in the city, after this case?
We've toured around the country with the film and screened it often with one or more of the five there to answer questions and talk to people. "Why do you live in New York still after what the city did to you?" Raymond's answer is, "I think I earned the right to live here." Antron has a very different experience, which was that he came back from prison and it was just too hard to be here. He needed to exile himself and find something very different and removed from this and removed from people who knew him and knew his story. I think the other guys, part of it is that this is what they know. This is where their families are. This is the only place they've ever lived, for some of them. This is the only home they can imagine.
The fact that they all seem to be coping as well as they are is shocking. But it's not easy, and you see that they're all coping with it in different ways and having, I think, different degrees of success with that in terms of how they put their lives back together and find work and create families and lives. All of that is so complicated and so difficult. It's been great going around and sharing the film with audiences and having [the five] be there, because just witnessing what happens between these guys and an audience that learns about this story, that's outraged, that wants to support them, that wants to give them hugs and applaud for them, has been just amazing to watch, and the therapy that that is for them. To be in front of a crowd and have that crowd not hate them, but go, "Oh my God, I can't believe what happened to you. I'm so sorry. How can I help? What can I do? How can we fix this?" That really means a lot to them.
NEXT: Burns on her Jackie Robinson project and how it compares to "42"...
The conversation will certainly continue, especially as more people see "The Central Park Five," but you are about to start working on your next project, which is about Jackie Robinson?
Yes, we were just finally able to get started on that. We're going to do a two part film for public television about, really, the life and times of Jackie Robinson. So not just the baseball story, which is obviously really important, but Jackie's whole life and his efforts toward equality in so much of what he did, even outside of baseball, and then what was going on around him how the civil rights movement was evolving and changing, what it meant that he broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, and where he comes from, and what he did after his baseball career, which is really interesting as well.
Have you seen the movie "42"?
Yes, we just saw it the other day. It's really fun to watch it sort of brought to life in a different way. That film focuses very specifically on about a year or two -- I guess two years, really, that they cover, so '45 to '47. That's very different than what we're trying to do, but it's great to see the interest in Jackie Robinson, that people are interested in knowing more about him, I think, and not just the myth of Jackie Robinson, but, really, who is this guy? I think it's a great thing. And I appreciate that the film tried very hard to stick close to the facts, which is not always the case when you've got a feature film that's based on a true story. This one really is based on a true story.
Will it be the same team from "The Central Park Five" working on the Robinson project?
Yes, it's the three of us again, the family team.
It must be special to work with your dad on something baseball related, a subject that's so synonymous with him and his films.
Yes, definitely. I really grew up around the "Baseball" project. I was in middle school when that was in production … I have great memories of coming to the screenings with all the consultants, and sitting there at 11 years old, raising my hand and saying, "I think that you should use that photograph instead of this one." [Laughs.] Making my little comments. I must've been in, I don't remember what grade, but in middle school, I think, and I wrote an article around the time "Baseball" came out, for Baseball Weekly [now Sports Weekly] … they had a kids' section, and they hired me to write an article, and I wrote about how Jackie Robinson was my hero.
"The Central Park Five" filmmakers on making the movie as a family:
You're a lifelong baseball fan, then.
Yeah, I grew up rooting for the Red Sox. I grew up in New England, and my dad had been a Red Sox fan since college, so I always followed the Red Sox, and I played softball as a kid, and through high school. I've always been a baseball fan. It's exciting to work on this and sort of come back again to Jackie Robinson and try to really dig deep into this story. I feel like everybody learns about Jackie Robinson probably in fifth grade, right? We learn about how he turned the other cheek and integrated baseball, and it's this wonderful celebration, and that's certainly a part of the story, but I feel like everybody knows that one little part, and most people don't know the bigger story, the aftermath. There's a lot more to that that's really interesting.
Fantastic. When do you think the Jackie Robinson film will air?
We think it will broadcast on PBS probably in early 2016.
"The Central Park Five" is available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Home Entertainment. It includes interviews with the filmmakers and four of the Central Park Five.