Nearly 24 years after five Harlem teens were arrested for the atrocious assault and rape of jogger Trisha Meili in Central Park, the case has returned to the headlines. "The Central Park Five," a new documentary codirected by Ken Burns, explores the circumstances that eventually led a Manhattan judge to vacate the convictions of the five men in 2002.
A lot of the attention around the film has centered on a federal judge barring prosecutors from using outtakes in their effort to fend off a civil suit the men filed a decade ago. Less noted is the case's haunting, but enduring legacy.
"The Central Park Five" arrives after the New York City Police Department announced in the fall that it will expand a pilot program of videotaping the post-arrest questioning of felony suspects to precincts citywide. This is a breakthrough for justice in the city -- and it marks a surprising turnaround. The NYPD had long resisted implementing such a program. But times have changed.
"Call it part of the 'CSI' effect," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a speech last year. Juries have come to expect more evidence.
But the reason for that goes beyond a hit TV show. An alarming string of wrongful conviction cases have been unearthed nationwide in recent years.
By the early 1980s, the Manhattan district attorney's office routinely videotaped the confessions of criminal suspects. In fact, videoed statements produced the convictions in the Central Park case. What hadn't been recorded were the many hours of aggressive interrogations by homicide detectives, which led the teenagers to falsely confess.
After a recent screening of "The Central Park Five" in Brooklyn, I moderated a Q&A with two of the men. "Everything should be recorded," said one of them, Yusef Salaam. "There should even be cameras in the squad cars." It's a fair point. Ultimately, in the effort to prevent misconduct -- and strengthen the credibility of solid police work -- the more transparency, the better.
Advocates are pushing for more, broad policy reforms -- like the use of sequential lineups to prevent false witness identifications. Videotaping interrogations is a start, and the program should be ramped up quickly. Increasingly skeptical jurors need to be reassured that seeing is in fact believing.
Curtis Stephen is a New York City journalist who reports on the criminal justice system.