Ken Burns' ‘Central Park Five’ shows how justice goes wrong

Courtesy PhotoBig trial: Defendant Yusef Salaam walks into courthouse flanked by police officers in “The Central Park Five.”

Ken Burns, the PBS top-notcher whose documentaries feature American subjects great, terrible or iconic, returns to the big screen with “The Central Park Five,” in which he revisits a sensationally reported violent crime along with the shameful miscarriage of justice that followed it.

As a dissection of the case and an examination of law-enforcement methods that can yield false confessions, the film merits a look.

Co-directed by David McMahon and Sarah Burns (Ken’s daughter), the film uses the Burns staples of interviews (most significantly, with the title figures), archival footage and photographs to examine the 1989 incidents.

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On an April night, a barely alive female jogger is discovered in Central Park. She has been raped and near-fatally beaten.

Elsewhere in the park, a group of young people has been assaulting parkgoers. Harlem teens Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise, who are roaming with that group, run from cops, and are picked up.

When news of the rape breaks, police interrogate them for hours, trying to connect them to that case.

Exhausted and with no lawyer present, they confess to the crime. Not long after, they withdraw their confessions.
Never mind that their DNA isn't found at the crime scene, among other strong indicators of innocence. With the media screaming about “wilding” kids, and Mayor Ed Koch calling it the “crime of the century,” the five are convicted. They serve six to 13 years in prison before a serial rapist’s confession and related DNA evidence clear them.

Addressing why it happened, the filmmakers present late-1980s New York as a cocktail of racial tensions (the jogger was white, the teens were black and Latino), a crime wave, a fearful public, a media that blew it and law-enforcers that, pressured to produce a culprit, used aggressive, coercive methods to deliver, however false, the goods.

As journalism, the film sometimes gets soft. Indeed, the five teens didn’t commit the jogger crime, but what were they doing in the park that night? The matter receives hazy treatment.

But, overall, Burns and company’s fine documentary stirs viewers anger zones and offers an up-close look at how people, when browbeaten, sleep-deprived and lied to, might confess to just about anything.

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