A young man is interrogated in The Central Park Five.
A young man is interrogated in The Central Park Five.

“It was for everybody, not just me, the crime of the century,” declares former New York mayor Ed Koch in The Central Park Five. The crime Koch refers to was the brutal rape of Trisha Meili, a young, white investment banker jogging through Central Park in April 1989, but the movie, which opens Friday at Music Box, alleges another sort of crime, one that’s extended well past the century. Five teenagers—four black, one Hispanic—were convicted of the rape and served five to seven years in prison, but in 2002 a convicted serial rapist named Matias Reyes came forward and confessed and DNA evidence confirmed his story, exonerating all five men. A $50 million civil rights suit brought by the men against the City of New York has been dragging on for nearly a decade, and in fact the city recently subpoenaed notes and outtakes from The Central Park Five to defend itself.

Ken Burns never had this sort of problem with General Grant. The admired director of The Civil War, Baseball, and Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio steps outside his sepia-toned comfort zone with the new documentary, collaborating with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, producer David McMahon, to adapt her 2011 book on the Central Park jogger case. One can sense Ken’s hand in the movie’s cultural sweep, as talking-head commentary and fleet montages of TV news footage bring back the crack-fueled crime epidemic of the late 80s, the white hysteria stoked by the jogger case, and the tabloid press’s portrayal of the accused teens as subhuman predators. In a sense, though, the filmmakers’ explanations for why the injustice occurred may not be as illuminating as their investigation of how it occurred—how the police managed to convince themselves that the five kids were guilty and then grind confessions out of them.

None of the police or prosecutors involved in the case comment in the film, so the filmmakers are forced to piece together the events of Wednesday, April 19, 1989, with testimony from the five—Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray (the last of whom declined to appear on camera)—as well as print reporters Jim Dwyer of the New York Times and Natalie Byfield of the New York Daily News. The five kids, none of them friends, came into the park as part of a gang of about 30 that ran wild between 9 and 10 PM, bullying passersby, throwing rocks at people, and assaulting a homeless man. All five were rounded up by cops in response to the so-called “wilding” attacks and taken to the Central Park precinct; some of them were still there when Trisha Meili, the unconscious jogger, was found about 1:30 AM, savagely beaten, suffering from hypothermia, and not expected to live.

Logic dictates that a gang of kids running wild in the park might have been responsible for a crime committed in the park during that time; but, as Dwyer puts it, the homicide detectives questioning the kids were “trying to make the story climb some sort of ladder of facts.” None of the kids knew anything about a woman being raped, but the detectives— Humbert Arroyo, Carlos Gonzalez, and John Hartigan—kept at them. Santana remembers one cop bellowing in his face as another shouted in his ear, and Richardson recalls how they used his disabled mother to guilt-trip him. Social psychologist Saul Kassin reports the kids were interrogated for 14 to 30 hours, the detectives trying “to break the suspect down into a state of despair, into a state of helplessness, so that the suspect gets worn down and is looking for a way out.” Incredibly, the kids were all read their Miranda rights but none of them requested an attorney, nor did their parents; as Antron McCray remembers it, his father urged him to tell the police what they wanted to hear.

By telling each kid that another had implicated him, the detectives turned the five into a circular firing squad. Santana remembers Hartigan, who was playing good cop to Arroyo and Gonzalez, persuading him to implicate Richardson, and Richardson got the same treatment. “He just fed it to me,” Santana says of the detective interrogating him. “He gave me the names, I put ’em in. . . . If he woulda gave me a hundred names, I woulda put a hundred people at the crime scene.” Except for Yusef Salaam, the kids all made written statements, and the fimmakers provide extensive clips of their videotaped confessions, which all but sealed their fate in court. On video, Korey Wise is shown a photo of a bloodied Meili by district attorney Elizabeth Lederer and declares that Richardson beat her in the face with a rock. Questioned all these years later, Wise confesses he invented the story in order to go home: “I was 16, and I felt like I was about 12.”

As the film reveals, there were plenty of reasons for Lederer and Linda Fairstein, the other DA on the case, to second-guess the confessions. The kids were vague or inaccurate in recalling the crime’s location, the suspect’s clothing, and other specifics. Released from custody, they immediately recanted their stories. There was no DNA evidence linking any of them to the crime scene, whose ground markings clearly showed not a group but a single person dragging Meili from the path into the underbrush. And as Dwyer points out, the timeline of events doesn’t quite square: Meili was seen leaving for her jog at 8:55 PM, and her normal route would have put her at the location of the rape at about 9:20, when the gang disturbances had moved farther south in the park. But the police and prosecutors stuck to their story, and the court, the media, and reactionary public opinion did the rest. The real problem with a crime of the century is that people want it punished before another moment has passed.