Ken Burns and Sarah Burns Collaborate to Make "Wilding" Documentary
Ken Burns is a story-teller. His new documentary PBS film which debuted this week, The Central Park Five, is really a retrospective on the case of Trisha Meili, brutally raped near the Reservoir in the 875-acre Central Park, on April 20, 1989.
This week, tragically then, also marks the 24th anniversary of the so-called Wilding that became a watchword for random teenage violence. Later that year, and even though he had been found at the scene of the Meili crime, Matias Reyes was arrested for another rape. He later recanted and confessed to raping the Salomon brothers exec, Meili, long after the five boys had served long jail or prison time (from seven to 13-years). In 2002, the sentences of the youths were finally vacated and the now-men vindicated after they had all served their prison terms.
Sarah Burns is his Yale-educated daughter whose book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of City Wilding details late 1980s crime and punishment in New York. Sarah Burns examines the rush to judgment, "snitching" and the NYPD framing of juveniles who could be tried as adults for a rape and attempted murder they didn't commit. Ms. Burns is really a historian, chronicler, legal researcher whose concept for this book started when she was a law clerk in 2003 at the civil rights law firm filing the civil suit on the wrongfully convicted boys and their families.
Her book reveals the injustice of juvenile offenders being tried as adult in New York State as a result of a particularly brutal 1978 case. The five boys' confessions were coerced and long interrogations. They were 14, 15 and 15 years old.
DNA testing was still in its infancy. It had only been used in a court case to convict Florida rapist Tommy Lee Andrews in 1987, two years before the Central Park Five were tried as adults.
Meili lost 75 percent of her blood and yet no blood traces were on the defendants. Meili couldn't recall the rape due to traumatic brain injury.
A key point in the film is when New York prosecutors first learn they may have the wrong suspects. When DA Elizabeth Lederer, lead attorney on the case, learned there was no DNA sample that matched blood or semen on the crime scene, she said: "I feel like I have been kicked in the stomach." This narration stops the viewer/reader in his or her tracks.
A personal story: I am a longtime member of the National Press Club and saw Ken Burns speak at the luncheon to promote the film. WETA Exec Sharon Rockefeller was there as was Mary Stewart, a longtime WETA hand. I worked at WETA in national sponsorships for about a year, one of the toughest jobs I ever had, and helped fund or "underwrite" an environmental program. Like many, I was using social media at the press club lunch @pressclubdc.
Just then, one of the falsely convicted named Yusef Salaam, the boy accepted to the LaGuaridia High School of Music and Art and whose mom worked at the Parsons School of Design, retweeted my post. Later, he made it a favorite. Salaam himself as portrayed in the doc is intellectually curious and retells his story passionately. At the time of arrest, he about to prepare for college entrance exams!
In the epilogue of the book and movie, we learn Yusef Salaam is "gregarious and outspoken" and a strong opponent of the death penalty. He works for New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Like many who watched The Central Park Five film on Tuesday night's debut, I was struck by my reactions. Having lived near Harlem in the early 1980s while going to Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism for a semester, I knew the fear and felt the crime waves that struck the City. I knew not to go in Central Park at 110th street near my dorm, that is for sure. 110th Street is where the teenage marauders entered the park and 102nd is where Reyes raped Meili.
The 1980s footage, the narration by longtime New York crime reporter Jim Dwyer, the young boys in their taped confessions, the young men recalling their experiences with the same near-horror they must have experienced then, and the complete injustice of the whole ordeal reminds us that our criminal justice system is imperfect. Judges are imperfect, and trying juveniles as adults is questionable law.
"They would all be tried in state criminal court as adults, despite their young ages," writes Sarah Burns. "... New York Law made it possible for the city to try the 14 and 15-year olds alongside those 16 and older. This paved the way for prosecutors to try all of the Central Park Five as adults, with the attendant potential for longer criminal sentences."
Lederer had no DNA matches. She and detective Mike Sheehan worked tirelessly to make sure the coerced confessions held-up. The city needed a conviction in the case of The Central Park Five.
Mike Smith is a Huffington Post and Huff Post Live Contributor who worked for WETA at the same time as the Central Park Five case unfolded in New York
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