It wasn't the Mississippi Delta but enlightened, liberal New York City where, in 1989, five Harlem and Bronx teenage boys, black and Latino, were arrested, bullied by the police, and intimidated into making false confessions that they had raped and brutally injured a female jogger in Central Park. As the Big Apple quickly learned via the excitable tabloid media, the victim was an educated white woman, and this inflamed the city to a rush to judgment.
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These were the "crack war" days in an unsafe, deteriorating Manhattan, and it was ex-mayor Ed Koch who kept up with the Post and Daily News in his mean-spirited public attacks on the arrested. Meanwhile, the Central Park Five, defended by the worst of lawyers (one slept during the proceedings), had no chance against the sophisticated team of prosecutors representing Robert Morgenthau's district attorney's office, and the testimony of a stream of NYPD. Two trials ended with the Central Park Five found guilty and sent to long prison terms, even as DNA tests showed conclusively that none were at the scene of the crime. But we learn here a terrible lesson in judicial proceedings: confessions to a crime (even when obviously coerced, as seen here) will trump scientific DNA evidence in the eyes of a jury. Filmmaker Ken Burns takes a break from the teacup world of PBS, where his historical documentaries reign, to tell this gritty, miserably depressing story of the failure of justice in America. (Sarah Burns and Kevin McMahon are co-directors, co-writers.)
What keeps the film from being an impossible downer is the guts and spirit and smart words of the Central Park Five, four of whom, now freed, are interviewed at length. Creepiest of all: the real rapist and criminal, the Central Park One, was all the time in plain sight.