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the central park five

23 july 2011

The 1989 rape and near-murder of the "Central Park Jogger" was one of the most outrageous crimes of the late 20th century. A woman raped, remorselessly beaten, and left for dead; a gang of teenagers in Central Park bent on inhumane, violent harrassment of passers-by. There was every reason to be appalled at the rape of the jogger, even if the extreme outcry was overdetermined by her status as the white victim of a nonwhite criminal; crimes don't cease to be horrifying just because they conform to racist stereotype. There was every reason to decry the behavior of the "wilding" youths, out to intimidate the helpless and outnumbered. When five of the roaming kids were convicted in the Jogger case, the city reacted with triumph or rage, along racial lines; and bad as the racial divide was, the case arguably helped New York become the much safer place it is today; everyone on all sides found in the Jogger case evidence that a city's way of life had become unacceptable and untenable. But there was one small problem. The five convicted youths had nothing to do with the rape of the Jogger.

However much a community may desire scapegoats, the foundation of liberal society – and I mean "liberal" here in a sense both classic and highly positive – is that individual responsibility trumps the emotional needs of the body politic. To be plainer: since you're on your own in America, America ought to give you what you have coming. The Central Park Five (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana Jr), subjects of Sarah Burns's fine new book, are "the usual suspects" typical of the approximate justice of arbitrary anciens régimes.

Most troubling in the miscarriage of justice for the Central Park Five was the technique, apparently still common and legal, of pressuring suspects into confessions in the guise of enlisting them as witnesses. Eight or ten kids were plucked randomly from Upper Manhattan streets. They were told that the cops knew about their involvement in the rape, and that they'd better come clean. For whatever reason – because they were kids, because they were dumb, because they were scared, because their guardians didn't speak English, because they had no concept of the legal system, because they just wanted to go home – all of the Central Park Five said they'd seen and been marginally involved in a rape, naming others of the 8-10 youths as the main perpetrators. Nobody confessed to the rape itself, among other reasons because none of the kids had been remotely involved. In fact, DNA evidence pointed to an unknown man as the sole rapist. But cops, confessions in hand, assumed that that rapist was just an unapprehended accomplice. The case had been publicized as a gang rape, and the "gang" was going down for it.

The Five recanted their confessions and pled not guilty. As Burns shows, none of them could have been involved; they were either hassling drunks and cyclists somewhere else in the Park, or watching acquaintances do so, or in one instance home with their mom. But prosecutors are not obliged to establish an objective timeline when presenting a case. They're paid to win, and they win by telling a coherent, simplified story. The defense counselors, at odds with one another because the confessions of the co-defendants tended to implicate one another, were divided and conquered – when they weren't either incompetent or out-spent by the state.

Burns wrote The Central Park Five because the specific injustices of the case persist, long after the outrage helped change New York in general for the better, and long after the specific legal blame has been shifted to the actual culprit, a lone and clearly psychotic rapist/murderer named Matias Reyes. The convictions of the Five were vacated and their records expunged – but not till they'd served their sentences. They've gone through the gamut of possible roads back, in some cases forging careers and home lives, in others finding the notoriety and opprobrium of being famous criminal defendants hard to overcome, even with their innocence firmly certified. It's Burns's theory that justice is never really done unless it's done as publicly as possible. In this venture she has perhaps the bulliest of all pulpits: her father is Ken Burns, chronicler of the American mainstream. The two are at work on a Burns-style film of The Central Park Five, which promises to be the elder Burns's most topical and timely chronicle to date.

Burns, Sarah. The Central Park Five: A chronicle of a city wilding. New York: Random House, 2011.