Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, is one of the best books on a wrongful-conviction case in recent years. The documentary she is now producing with her father, Ken Burns, promises to be equally compelling.
The book and film focus on the wrongful conviction of five black and Latino teenagers in 1990 for the particularly vicious assault and rape of a white woman while jogging through New York’s famed Central Park on the evening of April 20, 1989.
The case set off a media frenzy in the crime-plagued city that soon spread across the United States after police announced that the five youths had confessed that they had committed the rape as one of a series of random assaults they and other teens committed in the park that night, a process they supposedly called “wilding.”
Burns adeptly dissects this case the skill of a surgeon. She shows how police jumped to conclusions and then manipulated and intimidated the five boys into highly inconsistent confessions that were greatly at odds with the facts. In the process, Burns shows how the police ignored the similarities between the rape of the jogger and a series of other area rapes, one of which ended in murder, committed just before and after it. After the boys had already served their sentences, the man convicted in the other crimes, Matias Reyes, confessed that he committed the Central Park rape on his own and DNA confirmed his claim.
Burns also details the ineptness and grandstanding of the defense attorneys before and during the trial and the open hostility to the notoriously pro-prosecution judge.
As a former journalist, though, I was most interested in Burns’ analysis of the pathetic performance of the news media in this tragedy. “Once the narrative about what happened was laid out within a few days of the rape, there was no turning back,” Burns writes. “The few stories that were more balanced and less hysterical failed to make any difference in a city ready to believe the absolute worst about a group of poor black and Latino teenagers.”
While coverage of the case by the Post and Daily News was particularly reprehensible, virtually all of it assumed that the New York Police Department’s version of events was accurate when it was actually way off the mark. While the Post and Daily News were fanning racial and ethnic tensions with talk of the teens’ “wolf pack” and “savagery,” The New York Times and minority-owed newspapers sought to examine the social factors that caused the boys to turn to such violence. The idea that perhaps the boys hadn’t committed the rape didn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind.
When the real rapist finally came forward to set the record straight and DNA confirmed his guilt, the news media showed the same resistance to the truth that cops and prosecutors do when confronted with evidence that they arrested and convicted an innocent person. Reporters did their best to link the boys to Reyes and suggest that they were all involved in the rape. To its credit, the district attorney’s office admitted its mistake and moved to have the charges against the Central Park Five dismissed.
The news media’s role in wrongful convictions is fertile territory, but few journalists have the courage to dig there. One exception is the always-perceptive Steve Weinberg, a journalism professor and advocate for the innocent. Steve has long argued that better journalism can help prevent wrongful convictions. You’ll find hs 2008 article, “Innocent Until Reported Guilty,” here.