Sat Dec 1, 2012, 12:44 AM
question everything (30,399 posts)
'Park': Unblinking Eye on Failed Justice
Movie Review by Joe Morgenstern
Simply stated, "The Central Park Five," which goes into national release this week, is a documentary about five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were convicted of a horrific crime they didn't commit—the beating and rape, in 1989, of a white woman who had been jogging at night in Manhattan's Central Park. But nothing is simple in this painstaking, heartbreaking film, which was written and directed by Ken Burns with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. As filmmaking, it's a departure from Mr. Burns's characteristically measured tone; anger boils beneath the carefully composed surface. As history, it's a shattering portrait of New York at a time when the city, beset by violence and drowning in drugs, was frantic to assign blame for a terrible crime that appeared to be, not incidentally, an interracial crime. As a case study of law gone off the rails, it's about police and prosecutorial conduct, and the conjoined questions of whether the defendants' confessions were coerced, or whether five boys innocent of the crime simply chose to declare themselves guilty.
That they were innocent was officially acknowledged 13 years later, when a judge vacated their convictions. By then, though, the five had served their complete sentences, between 6 and 13 years. And their exoneration might never have come if not for a sequence of events that began when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist previously known to the police, confessed to the Central Park crime, and a DNA match confirmed his guilt. Subsequent investigations revealed that DNA tests of the five defendants had come back negative, and that their confessions were riddled with what Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau called "troubling discrepancies." But the impact of confessions, the documentary tells us, can be irreversible, trumping the results of DNA, and for whatever reasons, under whatever circumstances, the suspects had confessed.
These were not, as we learn, apprentice angels. On the night of the Central Park rape, they were part of a group of kids roaming another part of the park where cyclists were being hassled, rocks were being tossed at cars and a homeless man was beaten. But neither were they rapists, and they have become, over time and against unimaginable odds, thoughtful, strikingly eloquent and, to a man, intensely likable. (The most eloquent of the five managed to get a college degree before, as one of them notes, "they took education out of prison.")
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