Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 14, 2012 6:51 pm 
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Giving in

The "Central Park jogger" case was a sensationalized news story of a April 1989 rape and assault that took place in a New York City more violent and crime-ridden than today's (there were 3,254 rapes reported in New York City that year). The victim, who was severely beaten but miraculously survived, was a well-off white woman, a highly educated Wall Street investment bank employee, Trisha Meili, who lived on the Upper East Side. The boys rounded up because they had been in Central Park that night were black and Latino, from the projects. Ken Burns (of The War, The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and other noted TV documentaries) worked with his daughter (who did a companion book) and her husband, frequent collaborator David McMahon, to produce an excellent documentary about the crime, the publicity, 1989 New York, and the fate of the five young men. There are some gaps, and I just wish there had been more about these men and what jail did to them. There's just a little of that, and it comes toward the end of nearly two hours. Wrongful imprisonment cases should be less about the police misconduct and courtroom mistakes and more about the ruined lives and wasted years of the exonerated.

A lot of people go to jail and serve long sentences for crimes they haven't committed. This will already be familiar to you if you study crime and punishment, watched Culture Project's 2002-3 play The Exonerated, or follow The Innocence Project. This documentary, which, gaps or not, is an important film, provides a dramatic and disturbing example of wrongful conviction and imprisonment, not that any such examples aren't dramatic and disturbing, because five teenage boys were sent away for a long time for a single crime, which of course they didn't commit. The shocker is that, as they explain in interviews provided recently, they confessed. But that's not at all unusual. People can be made to admit to most anything.

The best advice we can give to any black or black-and-Latino teenage boys in America is this: Don't get arrested. If you do, get a good lawyer. Of course if you're poor and black or Latino, that isn't easy. So if you can't afford a good lawyer, at least get a court-appointed one, and don't say anything till you do. What the testimony in this film shows is that minority teenage boys being interrogated by big city police don't have the power to resist.

Trisha Meili was left in serious condition and only miraculously survived. She was not interviewed for the film, but this gap is less damaging since she cannot remember the assault. On the other hand the prosecutors in the two trials and the police who did the interrogating and got the confessions give no interviews, evidently for the less excusable reason that they are unwilling to admit that they erred.

That night, the boys rounded up ranged from age fourteen to sixteen: Kevin Richardson 14, Raymond Santana 14, Antron McCray 15, Kharey Wise, 16, all were induced to confess officially to the crime, and each implicated the others. In classic police interrogation style, they were worn down with many hours of questioning without food and induced to accuse each other, thinking that they'd get off that way. A fifth suspect, Yusef Salaam, 15, made verbal admissions, but refused to sign a confession or make one on videotape. They were confused and scared. They just wanted to go home. (In this film, Antron talks to interviewers but declined to be filmed.)

It's disturbing to watch the videotape of one boy, Yusef Salaam, evidently saying anything his unseen female questioner asks him to admit to. The boys broke down under pressure, after many hours of questioning without food or sleep, and "confessed" to a crime they apparently knew nothing about. They also pretended to have collaborated when they did not even know each other.

Thirteen years later, the actual rapist, Matias Reyes, in prison for life (not interviewed, but there is archival footage and recorded testimony) met Kharey Wise in prison, after thirteen years. Wise, as a sixteen-year-old, had been been sentenced as an adult, to five-to-fifteen years. After apologizing to Wise, Reyes was moved to confess. DNA and semen and his accurate, specific description of the event showed he and not the others was the guilty party. At this point District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau's office acknowledged that the boys' confessions contained "troubling discrepancies." When they went home, and before the trail, they rejected their confessions. But during the trial, their confessions, despite the many "discrepancies," outweighed their denials and the lack of any forensic or DNA evidence to convict them.

Obviously the other weight was public pressure to punish somebody for the super-publicized crime. A black interviewee comments that if this had happened earlier, in the American South (alluding to the Emmet Till case), the boys would have been simply lynched. This was more a polite, legal lynching.

And politely, legally agreed to. The prosecutors followed the rules. It's disturbing to watch the interview with the one juror who was not convinced and long held up the "guilty" verdict. He explains that eventually he, like the boys, gave in. Might he by persisting have saved the boys collective decades of time in lockup?

I'm also confused by the talk about "wolf packs" of boys who went "wilding," a supposed slang word of black teenagers to designate going on the rampage at night, and a map and time-line of other assaults in Central Park that night. Did these boys engage in any of those, but not in the rape? Was "wilding" a real term, and did they use it or know of it? The film could make all that clearer. (A well annotated Wikipedia article clarifies some issues left unexplored in the film.)

After Reyes' confession in 2002 the convictions were vacated. But this didn't erase what their convictions and imprisonment did to the men. One of them went back to jail. He had to register as a sex offender, and couldn't get a decent job, so he began to deal drugs. Another recounts that he tends to be violent, and can't have a normal conversation in a crowded room because his prison reflexes put him continually on guard. Another speaks of their being robbed of their youth, and never getting back the years they lost. Several of the convicted five brought a federal lawsuit against the city but it remains unresolved, nine years later. The film shows that black people long felt outrage at these convictions, suspecting them to be wrongful. It also points out that not only did the vacating of the convictions get far less publicity than the trials, but columnists were vicious, raging that the five were guilty anyway and ought to be still in jail. The press was wrong and so was the law. Neither wants to admit it.

The Central Park Five debuted in May 2012 at Cannes and was shown at Toronto and London. It began limited US release 23 Nov. 2012. Screened for this review when it began a one-week run at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley 14 Dec.

A YouTube video shows a 15-minute summary of the case and the film on ABC's "The View" with Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Ken and Sarah Burns on hand. The film will also be shown on PBS.

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