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Ken Burns' 'Central Park Five' is a vivid reminder the 1989 rape case

"The Central Park Five" tells the story of the five Harlem teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989. Credit: Florentine Films

There's plenty of blame to go around in "The Central Park Five," Ken Burns' documentary about the 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park that resulted in the wrongful convictions of five Harlem teenagers. The film shows how prosecutors, the press, the public and the justice system failed the five suspects -- all black or Hispanic -- who ended up with sentences ranging from five to 15 years. By the time DNA evidence and a confession from a convicted killer proved their innocence, they had spent their youth in prison.

"We have to talk about our own culpability, your own culpability," says Burns. "We all bought this story hook, line and sinker."

"The Central Park Five," which opens Friday in Manhattan at the IFC Center, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Harlem's Maysles Cinema, is the rare theatrical release from Burns, known for PBS series like "The Civil War" and "Baseball." (Another, "The Dust Bowl," premiered on TV earlier this week.) It's also one of Burns' more topical films, based on a 2011 book by his daughter, Sarah Burns, who co-directed with her husband, David McMahon.

The case is a vivid reminder of an uglier, scarier New York City. Crime was high, crack cocaine was infiltrating poor neighborhoods and the Howard Beach racial incident was a fresh memory. At the time, the Central Park five -- Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana -- fit the popular image of teenage criminals.

Rounded up with a group of youths who had been assaulting passersby in the park -- "wilding," as it famously became known -- the five were interrogated for hours and finally confessed to the rape hoping that police would then release them. (The jogger, in a coma, couldn't identify or rule out anyone.)

"People do not understand what it's like to be in a room with a detective who's taken over your world," says Garden City attorney Bruce Barket, a former Nassau County prosecutor. "It's a planned strategy, studied, framed and practiced, to get people to admit a crime they either did or didn't commit."

"The Central Park Five" is full of rueful admissions from the suspects, from journalists who covered the case and, most shockingly, from a juror who noticed glaring inconsistencies in the defendants' testimony but caved into peer pressure to return a guilty verdict. No police or prosecutors, however, are interviewed in the film. Burns says they declined to speak, citing a pending lawsuit filed by some of the five against New York City. (The city recently subpoenaed footage from the film; Burns has said he will fight it.)

Santana, now 38, still lives in Harlem and has been granting interviews to help promote the film. He says he has never received an apology from any law enforcement official involved in his case. "It would be great," he says, "because it would show that New York wanted to do the right thing."


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