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The Central Park Five

by Louise Adams
Wednesday May 8, 2013
The Central Park Five

I recently reviewed the re-release of "In the Name of the Father," the film based on the real-life Gerry Conlon, convicted for an IRA bombing he didn't commit. His confession was coerced by torture, and he, his friends and family members were wrongly imprisoned for over a decade, despite the real perpetrator's confession. Conlon was framed for being Irish and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The same year Conlon was finally released, 1989, a white jogger was violently raped in New York's Central Park. A handful of brown and black teenaged boys was likewise railroaded into confessions, despite wildly conflicting stories and lack of any material evidence. Antron McCray (15 at the time), Kevin Richardson (14), Yusuf Salaam (15), Raymond Santana (14), and Kharey Wise (16) were given the maximum sentences for being the wrong color in a city surrounded by a "social moat" of racial and economic divisions during the rise of crack cocaine.

Ken Burns' latest documentary "The Central Park Five" recounts the stories of these men, once poster children for "wilding" and "rampaging in wolf packs" ("invented phrases for imagined crimes"), from their youths, to their trials (there was a public outcry to bring back the death penalty), their sentences (most earned GEDs or learned trade skills while incarcerated), and their exonerations in 2002, when the Manhattan D.A.'s office finally accepted the confession of actual rapist Matias Reyes.

Journalists, lawyers and psychologists of the time are interviewed alongside archival footage, newspaper coverage, and Mayors Dinkins and Koch add their two cents too (in an interview at the time, Koch all but declared the group's guilt before their trials). NYC prosecutors and police declined to comment for the film, likely due to "institutional protectionism," and McCray only provided voice-overs to maintain his privacy.

Although they filed a civil suit, none of the five has been compensated and, like Conlon's group, have lived troubled post-prison lives. The assaulted jogger Trisha Meili recovered and is a motivational speaker. But, as a historian remembers the crime's polarizing interracial hysteria, he notes "we should be horrified by this mirror of society. We have walked away from our crime."

"The Central Park Five"
Blu-ray includes filmmaker interview and "After 'The Central Park Five'"

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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