Burns, Santana reflect on impact of ‘The Central Park Five’

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Burns and Santana share a laugh on the Amphitheater stage Monday.

“Journalism is about an event that happens, and many times, journalists ignore the ramifications of that event 10 years later. And Ken Burns’ work is off the ball. It’s at the larger effect, the larger implication, the larger collection of information,” said President Tom Becker in welcoming the documentarian Burns back to the Amphitheater stage at 10:45 a.m. on Monday.

That larger implication is evident in Burns’ film about the Central Park Five, the five black and Latino men who, as teenagers, were falsely convicted of the 1989 rape and nearly fatal beating of Trisha Meili, a white investment banker jogging in Central Park.

In 2012, 10 years after the five men’s eventual exoneration, Burns co-directed “The Central Park Five” about the case with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon.

Raymond Santana, one of the five — who was 14 years old at the time of his arrest — spent five years in prison. He joined Burns in conversation about the film.

Becker moderated a conversation between the two that was punctuated by footage from the documentary.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Burns said.

“And yet, of course, when he wrote that sentence, he didn’t intend it for any women. He certainly didn’t intend it for African-American slaves that he owned,” Burns went on. “And so [he] set in motion a republic that is constantly dealing with this contradiction of ‘How could this have happened?’ ” 

The adage that “journalism is the first rough draft of history” holds true in this case, Burns said.

“Except no one turns in a rough draft,” he said. “And one of the great failures in this case, particularly, is the failure of journalism. The failure of journalism to ask a simple question: Who were these five young men?”

These young men, Burns said, were “good kids, by the way, from relatively stable families, who were doing well in school, who had not had any real problems with authorities before this story begins to unfold.”

That inexperience with law enforcement, Burns said, was partially to blame for their convictions.

On the evening of April 19, 1989, the five were in Central Park along with 35 or 40 other boys.

“Some of them begin to hassle joggers and drunks. They roll a drunk. There’s some violence done,” Burns said. “They try to stop bicyclists. One person is actually beaten, and the police disperse them. And that’s about it.” In the process of this, Santana and 14-year-old Kevin Richardson were arrested, along with three other boys who were in the park that night.

Meili was then discovered lying in the park, beaten to the point of unconsciousness.

“All of a sudden, it’s the biggest thing ever,” Burns said. “Let’s not forget that that same day, there were several other crimes involving the death, the rapes of black women, and women of color and other minorities in the city. And this did not get the attention of a young, white — nobody knew her name, nobody knew where she worked — who was fighting for her life at Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem.”

Few crimes had attracted the attention of what would be known as the case of the Central Park jogger, which the late, former New York mayor Ed Koch called “the crime of the century” in the film. This prominence, Burns said, created a sense of urgency not only for New York City police, but for journalists, whom he said used the police as their main or sole source.

Meanwhile, Santana, Richardson and the rest of the five did not know to “lawyer up” and knew nothing of their Miranda rights, Burns said. For more than 30 hours, police interrogated the boys individually and denied them water, food or parental supervision, eventually extracting from them filmed confessions that, despite major factual inconsistencies, would become “essentially the key to their prosecution.”

The oldest of the five, Kharey Wise, was 16 at the time of his arrest, but Burns estimated that he had, and still has, a mental age of 12 due to developmental challenges. Nevertheless, because of his age, Wise was tried as an adult and would serve 13 years in prison — far longer than any of the other boys.

“This is a circular firing squad that took place over about 30 hours,” Burns said of the interrogations. “The cops are constantly faced with a very clear evidence that all five of these kids — children — don’t know where it took place, don’t know anything about what took place, but they’re nonetheless plowing through, because they think they can ‘make’ them, as they say, for this crime, and solve it, and get it done and add a feather to their cap. And they are in no rush to investigate other, strange anomalies that are taking place.”

Two days before Meili’s attack and the boys’ arrest, another young woman was brutally assaulted, Burns said. She described to the police a man with stitches, who a detective successfully located by calling local hospitals.

“The cops then, oh, forgot to follow through on that,” Burns said.

That man, Matias Reyes, would go on to rape other women, including a pregnant woman who he then murdered, until he was caught by civilians and given a life sentence.

Meanwhile, the boys were convicted, despite a lack of real physical evidence, which included DNA that did not match any of the boys. Burns said of the boys that there was “nothing of the crime scene on them and nothing of them on the crime scene.”

“Everything that you worry about happening in jail happened,” Burns said.

Despite opportunities to shorten their sentences by pleading guilty or testifying against others, the five served their full sentences, unwilling to deny their innocence and wary of a justice system that had previously manipulated them, Santana said.

All five, Burns added, sought out higher education in prison and earned degrees.

Wise, who finished his sentence in 2002, encountered Reyes in prison, a meeting that inspired Reyes to admit his guilt in Meili’s attack.

“The psychopathic, sociopathic rapist-murderer has a conscience,” Burns said, “And he goes to the warden and says, ‘You know, they didn’t do this. I did it.’ ”

Reyes’ DNA matched the evidence in Meili’s rape kit, and in December 2002, a judge vacated the convictions, triggering what Burns called a “huge reactionary response” on the part of police and prosecutors. The idea that “they must have done something,” held by establishment figures, including former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, survived, Burns said.

In 2003, Richardson, Santana and one of the other convicted men, Antron McCray, sued New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress.

“The city shamelessly delayed the trial, the suit,” Burns said, referring to the 10-year delay to begin depositions after the 13 years between the boys’ arrest and their eventual exoneration.

“We know that what happened for those 13 years is justice denied,” he said. “Justice delayed is also justice denied.”

Santana has not held onto much anger at that injustice, he said, emphasizing his faith as a source of relief over the last quarter-century.

“ ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’ ” Santana recalled thinking when he felt he was at “rock bottom.” But after exoneration, he secured a job, had his now 10-year-old daughter, went back to school and met his fiancée.

“All that stuff starts to strengthen my faith, and it starts to put it back into perspective,” Santana said. “And I say, ‘You know what? He was with me this whole time.’ I just didn’t know, you know? And He comes at the right time. It’s not when you want Him. It’s when He says it’s time.”

In addition to his full-time job as a clerk at a union in New York City, Santana works as an advocate with the Innocence Project, a litigation and public policy organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

“We were able to take the label of the Central Park Five, turn it around and turn it into something more positive,” he said.


Q: Please comment on facial imagery used in the media. The film shows humanity and warmth, while the pictures in the media show anger.

Ken Burns: This is the thing that was missing. The component of the five was any question by any journalist or any member of the public about who they really were. If you go back to Macon, Georgia, or many places in the Deep South where lynchings took place or African- Americans were incarcerated the same language of beastiality, the same language of darkness and fear of animalistic things are used and that was used by the liberal press of New York City at that time. And nobody is exempt from the guilt of having bought this.

A very interesting side effect is that there was a murder in the early 1960s in which an African-American man from Queens attempted to help the police solve it. They decided that this help indicated his guilt. They charged him and then all the eight or nine daily newspapers ganged up and went and found and corroborated his alibis and did this. This drove the entire United States toward the Miranda ruling. It came from that case. Now you flash forward to this case. What this drove is for New York state, to finally, finally reinstate the death penalty [sarcasm]. That’s the good news that came out of this case and these are children.

Q: After your experience, do you think it’s possible for us to have a police force that can provide justice and safety without victimizing the innocent?

Raymond Santana: Yes, I think that what we have to do it look at those, not the police themselves, but those who are in charge themselves. Those who make the policies, procedures and the rules of the police force. Because these are the ones who are putting the police force under pressure to meet a quota. Stop and Frisk was big on that, and so we have to look at that as a whole. We have to give it to those that are in charge and put those in charge who will say, “You know what, it’s time for the police in the community to work together.”

Growing up, when I was younger, it was always said that a police officer knew the whole neighborhood. He knew everybody that owned the stores. He knew your mom and your dad. He knew you as a little kid until you grew up, and I think we need to get back to that.

Q: Raymond, what did your court appointed lawyer advise you when you told him/ her you were innocent? Did you have the opportunity to declare innocence to the jury?

RS: My court appointed attorney at that time was Peter Rivera and I think that he was in denial also. He thought that I was guilty until he finally got somewhere in the middle of trial and I remember him saying, “You’re innocent,” he mumbled it under his breath, but it was too late. There was nothing he could do and when we got convicted I remember him coming to the back and said, “Don’t worry. Five years is not a long time; you’re young.”

KB: Antron had a good — more than adequate representation — and the rest were very deeply flawed defenders who essentially, as Raymond said, bought into the idea that they were guilty, and was sort of just treading water during the course of the trail. All of them came around lacking the skills to do anything about it, to the understanding that they hadn’t done it because the evidence was so circumstantial at that point that they realized that these confessions had been coerced. That there were discrepancies and inconsistencies between them. That if there was this stray DNA that no one knew and none of their testimonies indicated that there was anyone else there, what was that about?

Film is polygraphic, and if you look at the cops and the investigators who refused to come and be interviewed by us, throughout — we called every six months — you can see that they know already. If you look at Elizabeth Lederer, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, she wins it and she’s shell shocked. You can look at her and she looks like a deer caught in the headlights. She knows deep in her soul, she knows the mistake she and her colleagues have made and yet, just as Jim Dwyer said, they can’t let it go. But as you know, even the smallest lie, the more you tell the more it gets reinforced, the harder it is to walk it back to someplace and what we need is a kind of moment of truth and reconciliation.

The New York Times and Jim Dwyer are pursuing the evidence of the 17th of April to keep the city realizing because as it looks like no cop is going to go to jail. No assistant district attorney is going to be scolded or go to jail for this and somebody’s got to be held accountable for why they let Matias Reyes go and why they prosecuted the wrong people. I don’t think it will happen but somebody has to keep up the act and fight for justice.

Q: Can you talk about whether at least off the record there’s been any feedback from the DA’s office or even the police about the reality of this?

KB: Almost everything off the record from the ADA’s and the cops is just as horrible as you could possibly imagine. It reinforces the worst aspects of this whole case. The ex-district attorney Robert Morgenthau I think was horrified at the time that Matias Reyes came forward, and assigned the reinvestigation to two very seasoned district attorneys who themselves suffered enormous opprobrium and ostracization by the mainstream prosecutors who had done this.

It’s just part of that thin, blue line that extends to the prosecutorial department of the city of New York and then the corporation counsel, the lawyer for the city, closed ranks and you can get, as you know in this fractured country, enough people to say that, you know the earth is flat, there’s no such thing as climate change and these guys are still guilty, they must have done something and other absurdities of that ilk.

Q: You describe a deep mendacity in terms of the police behavior which just seems unrelenting in this story and it’s also true that there’s a wild collusion with the media. Do you think there’s something uniquely New York about the way in which the concentration of media and the police department and its interactions contributed to this?

KB: Not really. The fact Sarah was able to find these just terrifying historical antecedents … it’s sort of sad that it happened in New York. We don’t think of New York in the same segregated way that say Boston is. We think of New York as a little more integrated, but we find that people making these decisions about others based on race reminds us of the truth of Ecclesiastes. What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun. Which suggest that all the high falutent stories of historias, that there are cycles of history are true. They are not true. Where that even George Santayana’s wonderful statement that, we are condemned to repeat what we don’t remember, that’s not true either. It’s just human beings. We will do this. We have been doing this and what people of good faith and conscience are required to do, which is to act as balanced to this tendency.

I have been studying war — where we’ll be talking about this later on this week — and this is where you see the worst and also the best. So I think to blame it on New York is not necessary. Cops come up to Ray all the time and say, “Keep up the fight. Keep going. You’re great.”

They too have felt the pressure of the stop and frisk. They too understand the way in which minorities get marginalized and in which we can begin to see individuals not as the beings we fully expect to be treated as but something other and it’s that other that is so dangerous. The idea that we can love the way we demonize our enemy and they don’t count for as many lives as our lives.

Q: So whatever happened to the other victim in this crime? What happened to the woman that was raped and where is she today? Has there ever been any contact between the Central Park Five and this woman?

KB: Some newspapers initially printed her name, and then I think instantaneously — in anticipation of her death — instantaneously walked back, and she was unknown for many many years. She is, of course, the principal victim of this story. She suffered extraordinary life threatening wounds. She recovered and fortunately, for she has no memory of the actual attack. She can remember putting on her jogging suit and then waking up a couple of weeks later in Metropolitan Hospital. Her brain was scrambled. She had some brain injury. She worked her way back. She ran in the New York City Marathon six years later in 1995. She came out in 2002, about the time of the exoneration, came out with a book I Am the Central Park Jogger. She speaks and gives motivational speeches. Because the first contact she had in the world besides her family members were the cops and the prosecutors who told her what happened in her missing gap. She found it, I think fairly hard to rewrite and rewire the narrative of this topic maraza she had after this memory loss. I spoke to her several times, understanding that her unwillingness to participate I think it was both reticence, lack of memory and a sense that the narrative was going to destabilizing places for her. She is an extraordinarily honorable person and we would let her know if there would be a screening near her.

I wish she could have remembered. Antron says this in the film, “I wish this lady”… she was trotted [and] limping down the aisle. A very blond, light skin person next to these black animals. In the trial, to make a point, she had nothing that she could add other than her presence. And Antron is just still to this day upset that she couldn’t come and say, “These guys didn’t do it. It was one person.”

It’s a complicated thing but in some ways this is a narrative in which the most important two people, Trisha Meili and Matias Reyes, are not important to the story that we’re telling. We’ve kept her very important throughout the film, don’t get us wrong. We’ve honored her struggle and of course he makes an appearance. He was planning to give us some interviews. Sarah and Dave visited him in prison in upstate New York and a few days later he was visited by other people and he was no longer willing to cooperate with us.

Q: Can you tell us about your experience in prison? Are you involved in any way in prison reform movements?

RS: Instead of being with my dad and him teaching me how to fill out job applications, how to take a woman out on a date or how to make my bed properly they were replaced with prison years. So here you are, you had somebody who told you when to get up, when to take a shower, when to use the bathroom and how to move throughout your day. It was very structured. The thing that did come out of it was discipline and patience. That’s the one thing that I brought back with me. There were a lot of negative characteristics that came out. The aggression and the being in the room with a lot of crowded people and always watching how everybody moves around you those things came out and those took time. That stuff took time for me to let go. It’s one step at a time, every day. To this day even till now it’s one step forward and that’s how we move in life. Taking it one step at a time and moving very slowly. Enjoying the scenery.

Q: How did the film obtain the photographs and video footage of the interrogation sessions? In the film it is shown the testimony/ confession speaks louder to people apparently in the jury than evidence. Can you comment on that on ignoring forensics?

KB: It’s one of those sad things. The cops leaked a lot of the stuff out. Someone got most of the transcripts. Yusef didn’t actually do that. His mom, a Parsons professor, came in and stopped it and so he did not make a statement. That did not save Yusef at all because he had been incriminated by the others. It’s been on the internet for a long time we felt as if the cops and prosecutors were doing our business, the people’s business, than we had a right to use it.

It was very interesting that in all the legal hot water we found ourselves in nobody said, “Why are you using these tapes? Where did you get them?” I think it was just cut like the Pentagon Papers, out and couldn’t be stopped. We understand as human beings how unreliable witness testimony is.

We think that the biggest thing that can happen is that you begin and Ray Kelly, the now departed police commissioner of New York City who steadfastly refused to support the settlement of this case, I’m sorry to say, I think is an extraordinarily talented and good man nevertheless fell under the sway of whomever, maybe just protecting his folks. He said, and we’ve been saying it for a long time, that the second a subject is asked a question there ought to be a videotape running.

So imagine if you were the jury. There was one lone holdout on the jury that we interviewed who held out for ten days and said, “Look, these guys didn’t do it. There’s too many contradictions,” and the rest were like, “Fry ‘em.” And finally he realized he wasn’t going to win and so as he says in the film, “I made up some cockamamy excuse so that I could go home.”

Everybody is making decisions so they can go home. But the decisions that everybody makes are going to make sure that nobody goes home for an awfully long time. If that jury had been able to see the good cop, bad cop. If that jury had been able to witness that 30 hours-without-a-break interrogation. If those cops mindful of those video cameras proceeded along a different way. I mean, we want our cops to lie and trick people into admitting where the kidnapped girl is buried, where the bomb is ticking, all the things of our forensics…we want them to use those tricks but we want to see the mechanics of the tricks so that when we are making decisions about other people’s lives they are not based on the momentum of our social outrage at the crime and our desire to find somebody, anybody responsible, even when we had the other guy.

Videotaping from the very beginning will end this. I wish to God I could tell you that this was an isolated case. But you read the paper everyday and somebody is being led out of jail after 28 years. Is he bitter? No. That was God’s plan for him. There was some person who is let out after 19 years for rape that he didn’t do now exonerated by DNA evidence. These are all 99 percent people of color in the United States and we already know what the new Jim Crow is. The warehousing of African-Americans and brown Americans just to keep them out of trouble. These are the things that I think the film brings up sort of between it images between its notes.

Transcribed by Zainab Kandeh