Ken Burns’ eerie documentary about the crime of the century (at least, according to former NYC Mayor Ed Koch) – the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park – is an uneven effort, but the story is so compelling and the good parts so strong, the work as a whole is commendable.
On the night of the rape, the subjects were part of a larger crowd of kids who were trolling Central Park, “wilding” (harassing and attacking bikers and joggers, beating a homeless man, throwing rocks, etc . . .) The five boys, ranging in ages 14 to 16, were picked up and interrogated for a long period of time and at interverals, very forcefully. As adults, they are credible in explaining that eventually, they implicated each other as well as themselves by providing written statements and videotaped confessions. They just wanted to go home and accepted the proffer from the police that if they gave statements, they would do just that. None of the statements matched up and the only DNA evidence found matched none of boys. But the power of a confession is unparalleled in the criminal law and all five were convicted, in two trials by two juries.
Their journey through arrest, trial, incarceration and exoneration is harrowing. With at least 3 of the 5 boys interviewed as adults (one would not go on camera), you can see the damage done to them in their eyes. Burns captures many powerfully moving moments.
Burns, however, makes an introductory error, revealing at the beginning of the documentary that the boys are innocent via the taped confession of the true assailant. The effect of this choice is to make the actions of the police and the prosecution seem more than egregious, but sinister. There is no question that the authorities may have fixed the facts to the confessions (the confessions were haphazard even in the aftermath of coaching by zealous cops), but the structure of the documentary suggests malice on the part of the authorities. It does not help that no one from the police or prosecution would sit for interviews, especially given the conclusion of an internal review of the case by the D.A.:
Comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies. … The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime—who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place. … In many other respects the defendants’ statements were not corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence. And some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact.
But perhaps this is a choice rather than lack of access. Mike Sheehan, one of the investigating detectives, told New York Magazine, “All this stuff about coercion really pisses me off,” Sheehan says. “Do you honestly think that we — detectives with more than twenty years in, family men with pensions — would risk all of that so we could put words in the mouth of a 15-year-old kid? Absolutely not.” More Sheehan: “I used to lie awake at night thinking about cases we had over the years: I hope to God we have the right guy,” he says. “That’s your biggest fear: You never want to put an innocent person in jail. Mother of God! I didn’t worry much on this one. Because they’re telling us where they were. They are telling us — the sequence may be off, but they’re essentially telling us the same stuff. They remember a guy they beat and took his food, they remember hitting this guy running around the reservoir. They went through all of these things, each kid. And they also tell you about the jogger. And they place people, so you have a mental picture of where they were around this woman’s body. And their parents are with them, not only in the interviews but in the videotape, for the record. That’s enough for me. I’m satisfied.”
We don’t get Sheehan. Instead, we get what becomes the second major problem for the documentary – the people Burns actually interviewed. With the exception of a social scientist and family members, the commentators who did sit down for Burns are desperate to contextualize the case. So, we have it fixed into the standard racial tropes of the time, and we are provided nuggets along the lines of “if this was a black girl . . .” and “we are all at fault, we are all bad” and “they would have been lynched like Emmitt Till.” These sentiments may be true and/or heartfelt, but they are pedestrian and they have the effect of cheapening the raw, chilling story being presented. Worse, the interviewer never questions the interviewees, a tactic that makes their observations come off as studied pronouncement.