“The Central Park Five” Reclaims Justice

Their Turn: Raymond Santana (left), Yusef Salam and Korey Wise attend the screening of “The Central Park Five” at the 2012 AFI Fest in Hollywood. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman

HOLLYWOOD-On a searing hot summer night in 1989, a white woman was nearly raped to death in New York’s famed Central Park. The brutal assault was a horrific crime buried beneath an avalanche of scattered voices and drowned out by the winds of darkness. The female jogger’s tattered and near lifeless body was found the next morning by a couple of runners. Police set up a crime scene.

Soon enough all of New York and the rest of the nation were tuned in to what had happened. As media headlines mounted, so did the pressure on local law enforcement to locate and apprehend the perpetrator(s) in the “Crime of the Century,” dubbed by then New York Mayor Ed Koch. New York Police didn’t look too far.

Because of recent “wilding” events at Central Park at that time in which local youths went about marauding around the park-mugging and robbing people-law enforcement put the onus of blame for the crime on that demographic group. Five black American and Hispanic teenagers would unjustly pay a steep price for their alleged guilt in the Central Park jogger case.

Their miscarriage of justice, struggles of coping with everyday life and the emotional and psychological trauma that comes from being the scorn of the media and public’s wrath for a heinous crime they did not commit, is told vividly and in heartbreaking details in the documentary, “The Central Park Five.”

This film leaves an indelible and unforgettable scar on those watching the documentary about as much as the prison sentence sentences to those five youths who did not deserve to spend one hour behind bars. You can’t forget it. Before the O.J. Simpson murder trial could grab worldwide headlines, largely because of the racial overtones surrounding the case, “The Central Park Five” story was its predecessor.

The prosecution, conviction and media scrutiny of “The Central Park Five” was just as race-fueled as the Simpson criminal trial in which the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back was acquitted of murdering his white ex-wife and her male friend. The difference, however, was that Simpson, was a beloved public figure.

After racking up millions of adoring fans from his football career, Simpson was also a successful television commercial pitchman and actor with crossover appeal, which generated a buzz of empathy from the public during his criminal trial. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam, suspected in the sexual assault and beating of the white female jogger, did not have that kind of luxury.

McCray, Richardson, Wise, Santana and Salaam didn’t have the luck of retaining a bevy of high-priced lawyers like Simpson was able to do. Instead, the coalition of Harlem youths was given a bunch of inept public defenders that were obviously overwhelmed by the national attention raining down on their clients.

“The Central Park Five,” produced and directed by the famous Ken Burns along with daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, brings to light everything that went wrong in this infamous case and cast serious doubts on the performance of the investigation by the New York Police Department and the race to lynch mentality of the prosecutors on the case. Like the Simpson case, “The Central Park Five” is about race and the all-too-familiar reality that society raises its ugly head with racism and bigotry whenever there’s even a hint of a black man committing a crime against a white woman. History has shown us as much.

The film does an exceptional job of point out how race played a huge part in the representation of the youths, the rush to justice without an adequate and thorough investigation and how the media played a large part in directing the outcome of the case.

Incredulously, “The Central Park Five” points how DNA evidence does not link any of the young men to the victim. And, of course, there are no eyewitnesses to the crime. As a result, McCray, Wise, Salaam, Richardson and Santana are all handed down prison sentences that range from six years to 13 years, before a serial rapist confesses to doing the crime.

“The Central Park Five” is a not a film for the faint of heart. It tugs at your heartstrings and moves you to tears as the young men finally share their pain and struggles to cope with the enormity of the situation they found themselves in. It is a film that further indicts the biasness in which law enforcement have operated when it comes to black Americans and Latinos in urban communities.

“The Central Park Five” is a story that should have been told a long time ago because it remains of one biggest news stories in a long time. But the good news is that Burns, Burns and McMahon have given McCray, Richardson, Santana, Salaam and Wise an opportunity to tell their side of the story. Finally, justice is in their hands.

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