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The Central Park Five (2012)
If they’d made a feature film rather than a documentary about the Central Park Five—the five teenagers who were convicted in the brutal assault and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park on the evening of April 19, 1989—Jack Klugman, who recently passed away, and who played Juror No. 5 in Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” wouldn’t have been a poor choice to play Juror No. 5, Ronald Gold, in the 1990 trial of three of the five. At the least, his casting would have highlighted the difference between the U.S. justice system in its ideal and its reality. In “12 Angry Men,” Juror No. 5 is the second man to come over to Henry Fonda’s side on the movie’s ultimate path toward justice and a “Not guilty” verdict for the black man wrongfully accused of a crime. In the 1990 trial, Juror No. 5 was the lone holdout, the reason the jury deliberated as long as it did (10 days), on the court’s ultimate path toward injustice and a “Guilty” verdict for the five black kids wrongfully accused of a crime. The movies, even serious movies like “12 Angry Men,” are still so much wish-fulfillment fantasy. Hooray for Hollywood.
As for why did Juror No. 5 changed his mind and voted to convict? It’s the same reason, ironically, the Central Park Five confessed to the brutal rape in the first place.
14 and 15, mostly
I remember the Central Park Jogger case well. I remember hearing about it on Sunday morning talk shows, sitting in the living room of my father’s house in South Minneapolis in April 1989. I’d just spent a year abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, and was preparing for grad school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but the thing I was doing most that spring? Dating a girl. A girl who liked to jog at night. As a result, the thought of random acts of violence, particularly gang rape by packs of kids, self-professed “wolf packs” engaged in the sport of “wilding,” terrified me. I never even thought to ask if it was true. It was on the Sunday morning talk shows, after all.
“The Central Park Five” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, begins with an audiotape confession. “I’m the one that did this,” it says. It’s chilling. Questions immediately present themselves. If these five kids didn’t do it, how did they get accused in the first place? How was this injustice done?
In ordinary ways, it turns out. In ways that will feel familiar to any viewer of “The Wire.”
The five were in Central Park that night. Raymond Santana, Sr. remembers sending his son there. He told him there was too much trouble on the corner, that the park was safer. This parental concern ruined Raymond Jr.’s life. Raymond Sr. knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He lives with it every day.
I’d forgotten how young the kids were—if I ever knew. Korey Wise was the oldest at 16. Raymond Santana, Jr. and Kevin Richardson were the youngest at 14. Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam were both 15.
They each became part of a gang of kids, anywhere from 25 to 32 in number, who, that evening, messed with people on the north side of the park: throwing rocks at cars; knocking over cyclists; beating up a homeless person. Each of the five, in the doc, claims he wasn’t doing any of the messing; each professes a kind of shock that this behavior was even going on. But they stuck around and the cops came, and Kevin, Yusef and Raymond Santana, among others, were detained at the Central Park Precinct and questioned about the incidents. They were about to be released when a homicide detective working on a rape case across the park telephoned. “Hold onto those guys!” he said.
A homicide detective was working the case because the jogger was in coma; she’d lost three-quarters of her blood. They didn’t think she was going to make it. But at least they had suspects. They had 25 to 32 of them. Within a day, five had confessed.
Why the innocent plead guilty
There was an article in The New York Times the other day about a rape case in West Virginia in which DNA evidence now suggests that the man who had been convicted of the 11-year-old crime, the 19-year-old who had confessed to it back then, didn’t do it. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project condemns the prosecution. An assistant prosecutor fights back. “Raping an 83-year-old lady is about as bad as it gets,” he says. “Why would someone plead guilty and say they were sorry several months later if they really had no participation in it?”
That’s what we want to know watching “The Central Park Five.” Why would these kids, if they didn’t do it, confess to this horrific crime? The answer we get sheds a little light on the world. It helps explain not only the Central Park case but the West Virginia case. It explains why Ronald Gold finally voted to convict. It explains why we went to war in Iraq.
The detectives interrogated the kids for 14 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours. They said they’d already been fingered by other kids in the gang. They said, “Hey, these other kids say you did it. Now we know you didn’t, but…” They offered them deals. They demonstrated anger and conviction. They didn’t let up.
“I just wanted it to stop,” one of the Central Park Five says.
“I just wanted to go home,” says another.
They were 14 and 15 years old and thought if they confessed to parts of the crime—the holding the woman down, say—they’d be able to go home. Instead they walked out of the police station and into a media maelstrom. Feelings were hot. Grandstanding took place. Donald Trump placed an ad in the local papers demanding the return of the death penalty. Members of the mainstream media called the boys “sociopaths” and “mutants.” Even many in the black community went along. “Many of us were frightened by our own children,” says Rev. Calvin O. Butts III.
All of this created a momentum for conviction. Yet without their videotaped confessions, which were quickly recanted, there was no evidence linking them to the crime. The New York Police Dept.’s own timeline placed the boys about a mile from the ravine at the time the rape took place. The trail of matted grass from the path to the ravine was only 18 inches wide, meaning they’d had to walk it single-file. Most telling of all, despite the ferocity of the attack, they’d left none of their DNA behind: not in the woods; not in the woman. The police had DNA, yes, but it was someone else’s. “I felt like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer told a colleague when she discovered this.
But the case continued; it had momentum. At the trial, on the stand, the police denied that they had coerced confessions; they denied making deals. And they had the confessions. “It was hard to imagine why someone would make up [a guilty plea when they were innocent],” Ronald Gold, Juror No. 5, says in the doc. He was the lone holdout for conviction. He says the other jurors even called him a rat for holding out. So, he says, “I went along with it in the end.” He says, “I was wiped out.” He voted guilty for the same reason the boys lied about being guilty. He got worn down. He just wanted to go home.
A modest nod
Most of the Central Park Five got 5 to 7 years. Korey, the eldest, was put away for 10 years. He was still there, at Riker’s Island, in 2001, when he crossed paths with Matias Reyes, who had been arrested in August 1989 and convicted shortly thereafter on multiple rape charges. He was known as the East Side Rapist. He did horrible things. He also raped and assaulted the jogger that night in Central Park. When he saw Korey still in prison for his crime, something in him stirred, and he confessed, the confession we hear at the beginning of the doc. When his DNA was compared with the DNA found at the scene, it was an exact match.
In December 2002, when the state of New York vacated the convictions of the five, I was working as a freelance writer in Seattle. I was probably working on a story for Washington Law & Politics. I was plugged in. But unlike April 1989, I don’t remember hearing about the case. “These were five kids who we tormented, we false accused, we pilloried in the press, we invented phrases for the imagines crimes” says historian Craig Steven Wilder. “And then we put them in jail. And when the evidence turned out that they were innocent, we gave a modest nod and walked away.”
“Central Park Five” is a straightforward, well-researched, powerful documentary, although I would’ve like a subtler ending. I also would’ve liked more on what led to the term “wilding,” which never existed until the police mentioned it in connection with this crime. How did it come about? David Dinkins mentions Emmett Till as historical reference point but no one brings up the Scottsboro Boys? That’s what I kept thinking. I kept thinking that for all the distance we’d traveled, we hadn’t gone that far.
But this is really less a story of race than coercion. It’s about the powerless, yes, but it’s a warning to the powerful. When you’re powerful, and committed, and you go searching for something, you’ll find it. You’ll find it because you’re powerful and committed. Even if the thing you’ve found is the wrong thing. Even if the thing you’ve found is the opposite of the thing you were searching for. Here, for example, we went searching for justice.
January 5, 2013
© 2013 Erik Lundegaard