08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ken Burns Illuminates Jogger Case

It takes more than the truth, sometimes, to change the way people think about an event. It may require an award winning, investigative book, or a clear-eyed, hard-hitting documentary to trigger a change in perception. In the case of the Central Park jogger trial and its aftermath, which I wrote about in my last post, it might take a new film by Ken Burns, the director of epic documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and jazz, to set the record straight.

At the time of the trials in 1990 and 1991, the assumed guilt of the five African American and Latino teenagers, who would be wrongfully convicted of raping Trisha Meili, was trumpeted in the media. "Their video-taped confessions and convictions were an extended page one story," Burns, whose film on the subject is still a work in progress, recently told me on the phone. "The barrage of headlines set in the public mind the bugaboo of black and Hispanic youths 'wilding' in the park. But when the boys were exonerated in 2002, it was not a page one story. It was in the back pages," he said.

Today, few people remember that the convictions were vacated. Much less that the men were exonerated at the request of Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau after "an extensive, complex and painstaking investigation of newly discovered evidence." Nor do many realize that these men, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise, who served between seven and thirteen years behind bars, are still waiting for the city to settle a six-year old civil lawsuit they've filed for malicious prosecution and wrongful conviction. Recent commemorative events, this being the 20th year since the attack, community demonstrations, and city council member initiatives have so far had no effect on the city's determination to continue to fight the suit.

Attorney Jonathan Moore, who represents four of the Central Park Five, says that the case may drag on for years more. It took U.S. District Court Judge Deborah A. Batts two years to rule against a motion by the city to dismiss the lawsuit. Now Moore and other plaintiff attorneys have to re-investigate thousands of files from the Police Department and the district attorney's office and they have to conduct dozens of interviews and depositions.
It's in the city's interest to drag out the process, hoping the plaintiffs will tire or run out of money. "The city will not do the right thing and settle," Moore says.

It was Ken Burns' daughter, Sarah, who interned with Moore's law firm in the summer of 2003, when she was still an undergraduate at Yale, which brought the case to Burns' attention. Sarah, who was majoring in American studies and researching civil rights law, says she was interested in the media representation of race in the case and the historical roots and context of the public's reaction to it. "The narrative in the press was such a powerful story that it stuck with the public and once it's there it's really hard to erase," she says.

The burden these exonerated men carry, Sarah and Moore told me, was the lingering, prevailing sense out there that they are still guilty. Despite the fact that there was never any physical evidence linking them to the crime, that the real rapist, Matias Reyes, admitted being the sole attacker and that his DNA matched the evidence on the victim, and no matter that Morgenthau reported that the boys' so-called confessions "differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime," a New York City Police Department panel investigation following the exoneration concluded that the five were "most likely" still guilty in some way!

"If, in fact these five young men were innocent, no one wants to explain how they were made to confess to a crime they did not commit," Moore says. Former detectives and prosecutors, who made lucrative careers out of their roles in the jogger case (Linda Fairstein, a sex crimes prosecutor at the time, is a name that frequently comes up) would have to admit that they prosecuted the wrong people and that they didn't do their jobs in following up on Reyes (who was in police custody the summer of 1989), Moore says.

Sarah Burns, who is writing a book on the case to be published next year, agreed that for political and financial reasons the city would resist a settlement of the civil case. "That there are people who are still pretty invested in the guilt of these men is probably not insignificant," she says. "My job is to help get the information out there."

Ken Burns' decision to focus a film on a single contemporary event is a departure. But race, he says, has been an ingredient in all his documentaries. "Not for any politically correct reason," he says, "but because it's there and it resonates...Any thinking person who scratches the surface of American history is going to get to the great sub theme of our country, which is race."

If Burns' documentary on the jogger case hastens some form of recompense for these unlucky men, whose youths were wasted in prison, so much the better.