By Liz Ryan
"Central Park Five
" is a "must see" for any youth justice advocate. The documentary tells the story of five youth ages 14 -16 –
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise –
who were arrested in New York City in 1989, and after being interrogated for hours by law enforcement, falsely
confessed to the rape and physical assault of a woman jogging in the park. They were convicted and sentenced to 6 to 13 years each in the justice system.
Produced by renowned documentarian Ken Burns
, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon, the film features moving interviews with McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise and their families, as well as others involved in their cases, and shows press reports, film clips of their interrogations, and footage of the case throughout the process.
Gut-wrenching and profoundly sad, this documentary highlights many of the the problems with the justice system that led to their wrongful conviction and are still prevalent in our justice system: police interrogating youth for hours without lawyers and coercing youth to confess to crimes they did not commit; prosecutors overlooking DNA evidence and other information crucial to the case; and a press corps sensationalizing the case with shocking language, virtually convicting the youth before the trial, and then hardly covering the fact that the convictions were vacated and the youths exonerated a dozen years later.
To add insult to injury, the young men, after having served a collective total of 41 years in prison for a crime they did not commit and being exonerated in 2002, have not received compensation from the city of New York. Their attorneys filed a lawsuit in 2003, but the film indicates that the legal case is "unresolved" almost a decade later.
Unaddressed - but underlining the facts and issues covered throughout the film - is the fact that state law allowed these youth to be prosecuted in adult criminal court and placed in adult prison to serve their sentences. If this case can teach us anything, it is that youth are different from adults and need to be treated differently in police and state custody. Additionally, despite what should have been a tough lesson for New York, the state remains one of two states in the country that continues to charge all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
The film also fails to mention the immense impact of this case on juvenile justice policies around the country. In the decade following the case, almost every state in the country changed their laws to make it easier to try youth as adults in adult criminal court. We now know just how misguided this was.
While difficult to watch at times and profoundly moving, this film can be used to engage community members on youth justice issues and spark dialogue about justice system policies and practices. Here are some ways you and your community can get involved.
for the film trailer and showtimes.
to follow the Central Park Five on Facebook.
to take action in support of compensation for the Central Park Five.
For more background and to help educate others, here's a terrific article
on the documentary