The National Catholic Review

Last September a 73-year-old bird watcher in Central Park came upon a 42-year-old drifter, who already had a police record of sexual attacks, practicing solo sex in a wooded area and snapped his picture. Nine days later he encountered her again, demanded she destroy the picture and beat and raped her when she refused. The story died in a few days; but to many it brought back memories of the 1989 Central Park Five, black and Hispanic boys in their mid-teens sentenced to prison for the rape of a young investment banker long identified only as “the Central Park jogger.”

The remarkable fact for today’s New York is that the Park’s reputation 20 years ago as a danger zone now seems ancient history. Today the park welcomes hundreds of New York’s happiest dogs, mostly off the leashes, romping, racing, sniffing and barking as their owners gossip with other dog lovers. Bikers and runners zip past. Homeless men sprawl on lawns and benches undisturbed.

All the more reason everyone should see the new Ken and Sarah Burns documentary “The Central Park Five,” the story of the arrest and trial of the five Harlem boys who were found guilty, sent to prison for 7-13 years until they were finally exonerated after a serial rapist confessed, in 2002. Though a crime story, the film has none of the pizzazz that makes blockbusters for today’s audiences: No on-screen sex or violence, no famous stars, no car chases crashes or explosions. Just some file film depicting the graffiti and trash-strewn streets of New York in the 1980s when crime soared and “law and order” was a political battle cry. The film part muckraking about racism in the New York law enforcement and part homily about our failure as a society to see the “other” as a human person like ourselves.

Burns tells the story through flashes of old tabloid headlines, talking head interviews with four of the young men — Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam, plus the voice of Antron McCray, who has left New York and changed his name in an attempt to start a new life. The camera switches from films of the skinny teen-age prisoner telling the police interrogator what she wants to hear to today’s heavy-set adult reflecting on his earlier life. It was, in fact, a bad night in Central Park, a mob of over 30 Harlem boys had invaded and were fighting among themselves or preying on vulnerable citizens. The jogger, Trisha Meli, was attacked and brutally beaten only 15 minutes after coming in. The trouble with the police case is that she was attacked a fair distance away from the marauding youths. There was no DNA evidence attaching the five arrested boys to the victim. The only evidence was their confessions, which they retracted within a few days, on the grounds that they had been worn down, intimidated and tricked.

But, as Burns presents it, the racism of the 1980s and the public hysteria fired up by the 3,254 rapes in New York City that year, demonized the youths as a “wolf pack” and “wilding” animals. Mayor Koch mocked the tendency of friends and family to describe accused boys as “good kids,” and New York Governor Cuomo told the New York Post, “This is the ultimate shriek of alarm.” Donald Trump published a full page ad calling the death penalty. Others pointed out, however, that a black woman had recently been raped and thrown from a roof top — followed by no public outcry. And if the victim had been found anywhere other than Central Park it would not have made the headlines.

The intellectual and moral center of the film is New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Jim Dwyer who criticizes the refusal of the original prosecutors to accept the fact that they made a mistake. He is the conscience of the city. I am not an indifferent reader of Jim Dwyer, having admired his columns and reporting and books since he was a Fordham student; but without his combined narrative, interpretation, and ethical code which drives him to speak for the unjustly accused, “The Central Park Five” would not be the must-see work of art it is.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.