Central Park Five co-director Sarah Burns talks racial profiling and media sensationalism

Five black and Latino teenagers were convicted of beating and raping a white woman in New York City's Central Park in 1989, when the city was in the midst of a racially motivated witch hunt. Though no compelling evidence placed any of the boys -- Antron McKray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise -- at the scene, all five served six- to thirteen-year sentences for a crime they did not commit.

The Central Park Five -- opening this Friday, December 21, at the Sie FilmCenter -- details this horrific miscarriage of justice and tells the backstory of how so many respected media outlets fed into the city's unsubstantiated fear.

Written, produced and directed by Sarah Burns, husband David McMahon and father Ken Burns, The Central Park Five sets the social and political scene for what has been labeled a "crime of the century." In advance of the film's opening in Denver, we talked with Sarah Burns about how racial profiling put five innocent teenagers in jail and sent New York City into a fearful tailspin.

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Westword: You wrote a book, The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes, that preceded the documentary. Why did you choose to write about this case?

Sarah Burns: I was too young in 1989 to have followed the story at all; I was only six years-old when it happened. I first learned about it in 2003 -- at that time I was a college student, and I was spending my summer working as a sort of intern for a civil rights lawyer. I was thinking about law school. He was then getting involved in the civil suit -- the convictions had just been vacated and they were working on getting ready to file the lawsuit in this case.

So I learned about the case then and was fascinated by it. It sort of fit with what I was studying in school -- I was majoring in American Studies at Yale and looking for a topic for my senior essay. I ended up writing my senior essay about this case, and about the racism in the media coverage. That was the sort of the beginning of this; I couldn't really let it go. I mean, there was so much more to it.

I focused at that time on the media coverage, specifically. I didn't interview the five (gentlemen in the case) or anything, it was kind of just an academic study of the four daily papers in New York and what they were saying, how they characterized these guys and what the historical contest was.

But it was such a great project and so fascinating -- it felt like there was so much more to the story. A couple of years later, I turned back and decided, instead of going to law school, I wanted to try to write this book. I spent the next few years doing that. It became very clear early on that this was so right for a film -- it was such an important story.

Not only was it one that wasn't known well enough -- I still talk to people all of the time who say, "Oh yeah, that 'wilding' case -- wait, they didn't do it?" So it felt like setting the record straight was important, but this isn't an isolated case, either. It's a particularly egregious example, I think, because of the media coverage. But it's important that everyone knows that it happened, not only in this case, but that it happens in general.

False confessions happen -- particularly when you're talking about juveniles and the way the system deals with them. There are things we should be aware of and talking about. (Like) why was the newspaper coverage so racist in 1989? It's shocking when you read some of the the stuff that was published then. Especially shocking considering the fact that these things were published by reputable news sources.

Right. That's the thing. Other than (Matias) Reyes' confession (a convicted rapist who confessed to the crime in question) that happened in 2002, all of the evidence was available to them then. It wasn't like new evidence came forward; they tested the DNA back then, and it was negative. And they went ahead (with prosecution) anyway.

The inconsistencies in the statements were clear at the time -- and they were ignored. It makes you start to wonder why it was so easy for people to believe that these kids committed this crime; it always comes back to race. You see the language in the newspapers, and it's the language of lynching. It's the language of the Jim Crowe South.

Pat Buchanan wrote a column in the Post that said that the oldest of the "wolf pack" should be tried, convicted and hung in Central Park? And that the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds be "horsewhipped" and sent to prison? I mean, this is 1989 in New York City. What (was) going on?

I can see a correlation with the West Memphis Three case and the Central Park Five, in terms of the sensationalism and completely false creation of these ideas of "youth culture."

Absolutely. That absolutely fit in with what was going on in New York at that time -- I think there was a sense that people were sort of afraid. People were afraid, period. Crime rates were much higher at the time then they are now. There was a sense that the source of the city's problems were these minority teenagers. It wasn't exactly true, but that was the sense of things.

The "crack epidemic" was this thing that was coming from the inner city -- (but) drug use goes across race and class, certainly. But there was this perception, and (the case) somehow fit with people's image of what was going on in the city, and it seemed almost -- logical. As horrifying as this crime was, people were saying, "Oh yeah, it figures."

In terms of, it's plausible that these children could be capable of this crime.

That's why you have to look back and see that it was bigger than just this story. Why did people think this way? Why do we still think this way? If you look at the statistics of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy which has been getting a lot of attention -- it disproportionately, to a huge degree, affects minorities. I think it's just another sign that we haven't even moved past this idea.

We had a comment on our film's Facebook page saying,"Why aren't we asking questions about why black people commit so many crimes." Sure, people post all kinds of things within the anonymity of the Internet -- but that exists. These kids were the image of what people feared, and who people thought were committing the crimes in the city.

The image "fit the crime," despite any compelling evidence showing that five kids were behind it.

Right. You can understand why the police suspected them, initially -- there was this group of kids in the park, this crime was committed in the same park. That's who they went to. The problem is, they used these techniques to get confessions. I mean, the police will tell you that in general, they don't interrogate innocent people; they only interrogate when they know someone's guilty. But how do they "know someone's guilty" before they have any of the facts?

So they go ahead with these techniques that are really good at "getting confessions" and sure enough, they get confessions. From innocent people and from guilty people. Then, when they do get the evidence, everyone is so sure they are guilty -- because of the confessions and because of (these kids) "fit the profile" -- that nobody seems to be asking the right questions. (Like) wait a second, why don't these statements make sense? How is it that none of their DNA matches? There's no other forensic evidence from an incredibly bloody crime scene? There's not a drop of blood on anyone?

Why didn't anyone say, hmm, maybe we've got the wrong guys. Maybe we should look elsewhere. And if they had bothered to look elsewhere, (the police) could have connected this to Reyes, easily. All of that information was right under their noses, too.

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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies