Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana were part of a crowd of around 30 young men causing mischief in the park, beating and harassing people and running wild. The media invented a word for what they were doing - “wilding”. Police arrested the boys on rape and assault charges and that night extracted confessions from them.
It didn’t matter that the boys didn’t know a woman had been raped, where she was found or any other details. But by the end of a long and brutal interrogation, all videotaped, each confessed to taking part in the attack.
The city went crazy with blame. New York Governor Mario Cuomo told the New York Post, "This is the ultimate shriek of alarm.” It didn’t help the boys that Trisha Meili, the victim, was a well-educated Upper West side investment banker with a promising future. Their arrest seemed somehow inevitable.
As stated in the film, if a black girl had been raped and found on a street in Harlem, “no one would hear about it”. Instead, they were accused of an attack on an upper class white girl. Racism runs rampant.The boys were convicted on the charges, based on their own confessions, imprisoned and served 5 - 15 years.
The problem is that they were innocent.
Ken Burns impeccably made film follows monstrous injustice and apparent racism in the police and judicial ranks. It was a slam dunk getting frightened black kids to confess to something, anything, after hours of continuous interrogation without benefit of legal counsel.
Videotape footage of their confessions is painful to watch. The interrogators tell them what they did to the woman and they are agreeing, even providing details and ratting out their friends. They have haunted looks on their faces as they regurgitate what prosecutors tell them to say.
Interviews with the boys, now men, reveal that they were terrified and tired and hoped that if they confessed and said what they were told to say the torture of questioning would end. A childish hope held out by confused 14 – 16 year olds. Instead, they confessed and went to prison that night. No lawyers, no help. It was simply a rush to place blame in the brutal attack on the now comatose victim.
Burns is known for shining light on hidden corners and does a great job with this shameful corner of modern history. His style is crisp and clean, the film looks well and is meticulously researched, the best of the best. Burns’ experience covers major PBS series over the decades, but this is the first time he’s covered intimate subject matter like this in a long while.
From The Dust Bowl to The Civil War, The American Masters series, jazz, baseball, WWII, Burns covers the big stories. As big as the Central Park Case was, it was still just the story of five boys abused by the system. That intimacy is part of the appeal of the film.
Burns shows us in excruciating detail how each boy suffered and how his life was destroyed because of a rush to judgement and racism in the city’s top offices. The system picked on defenceless, impoverished kids in order to wipe up the stain of the notorious crime and close the book.
It’s an intense, intriguing, and gut-wrenching experience. It’s no spoiler to say that DNA proof and a confession by the real perpetrator changed the case, but not before the boys were imprisoned and labeled criminals and sex offenders. It’s a shameful case in New York City history and Ken Burns has done the world a favour by bringing it to light. Never again.