In 1989, New York City police arrested five black and Latino boys between the ages of 14 and 16 for the rape and nearly fatal beating of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old, white investment banker who had been jogging in Central Park.
What unfolded over the next quarter-century would leave a gaping wound in an already ailing set of race and class relations in New York City.
In their 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five,” Ken Burns, with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, examine the case in the context of a crime-ridden, fearful 1980s New York.
At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, Ken Burns will play footage from the film and discuss some of the issues raised by it with Raymond Santana, one of the five men arrested for the crime. Santana replaces Sarah Burns and McMahon, who were originally scheduled to join Ken Burns.
No DNA evidence or eyewitness account implicated the young men in the crime, and within weeks of their arrest, they retracted the videotaped statements they had made after unfilmed police interrogation, claiming that the officers had lied to them, intimidating and coercing them into making false confessions.
Their confessions were factually inconsistent with one another, but that did not stop the jury from convicting the defendants of crimes including attempted murder, rape, assault, robbery, riot and sexual abuse. Each of them served between five and 13 years in prison.
In 2002, everything changed for the Central Park Five, four of whom had completed their sentences but still faced the stigma of their convictions. Convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, who was serving a life sentence for other crimes, came forward to confess to Meili’s attack, thus exonerating the five men who were then in their late 20s. The DNA evidence held up, and then-District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau recommended that the five men’s convictions be vacated.
The following year, three of the Central Park Five sued New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress.
After 11 years in limbo, the city announced a $40 million settlement in June 2014, compensating the five men $1 million per year of incarceration.
“This is putting a period on a long run-on sentence of injustice,” Burns said.
His daughter echoed this sentiment.
“Finally,” said Sarah Burns, who has been telling the story of the case since she was an undergraduate in 2003.
That summer, just after the convictions had been vacated, she worked as an assistant to one of the lawyers involved in the civil case. The case fascinated her to the point that she wrote her undergraduate thesis on the impact of racism in the media on the boys’ convictions.
The documentary makes the case that the media representation of the case played on the “climate of fear” resulting from sky-high crime rates in the 1980s and 1990s.
Growing up in western New York, McMahon recalled his family opting to drive through Connecticut and take a ferry when visiting friends in Long Island, rather than risk driving through dangerous New York City. In 1990, New York City saw more than 2,000 homicides, McMahon said.
That climate, coupled with the city’s social inequality, led to the blame being placed on young men of color.
Black and brown men have historically been treated as a scapegoat when white women are sexually assaulted, said Sarah Burns, calling the case “a modern-day lynching.”
In 2011, Sarah Burns extended her thesis into the book The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes.
“I felt like this is such an important story that hadn’t ever really been told properly,” she said.
The logical conclusion of that, she said, was making a film.
“It gave us this opportunity to explore the story in a different way than I could in the book, and most importantly, by allowing us to hear from the five themselves, and to give them a chance to tell the story in their own words,” she said.
Hearing from the five in the film, she said, allows the audience to “relate to them and understand how false confessions happen, how wrongful convictions happen, and what the human toll of that is.”
Finally giving the microphone to the Central Park Five was the film’s most important accomplishment, said Santana; despite the 400 articles that were published about the five the week of their arrest, he said that “nobody ever even heard our story.”
Meeting the film’s viewers, either at screenings or on the street, where he said he is routinely recognized, has made that human connection even more palpable.
“It’s also part of the healing process for us to come across these people, to feel that warm embrace, and to feel the apologies and the hugs,” he said. “It’s kind of them accepting us back into society.”
When the five do receive apologies from viewers who previously believed they were guilty, Santana said, “those are the apologies that we gladly accept.”
After being portrayed by prosecutors and the media as brutal rapists, a “wolfpack” of “urban terrorists” and “thugs,” the five faced total rejection from society in 1989, until their exoneration.
Since then, and with the help of the film, Santana said that the five have gone from “being the most-hated human beings on the planet Earth” to “being some of the most-loved guys on the planet Earth.”
While the five finally won their lawsuit, wrongful convictions still occur all the time, Santana said.
“It isn’t just an isolated incident, you know,” he said. “These people make mistakes all the time, and it happens all across the country. And we have to take this stuff serious.”
The Innocence Project is one organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. Santana works to lobby for videotaped interrogations, and believes that New York City should have a compensation law for exonerees.
“When these guys get exonerated, they just get dropped off and they’re put to fend themselves,” he said.
After being falsely imprisoned for years, as in his own case, Santana said that exonerees are told, “ ‘You’re free now, so just go ahead.’ And it needs to be more than just that.”
Karly Buntich contributed reporting to this article.