Nearly a decade after five teens wrongfully convicted in the infamous Central Park jogger rape case were finally released and vindicated, the NYPD is again prompting gasps of outrage over its handling of the case.
Top city officials have now filed a subpoena demanding that famed independent filmmaker Ken Burns and his Florentine Production company turn over all unpublished interviews and unreleased footage not used in the making of his related documentary in hopes it may aid the department in fending off a $250 million federal lawsuit since filed by the incarcerated victims.
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The department’s strong-arm efforts come after “The Central Park Five” played to rave and powerful reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Chicago International Festival just last month. The documentary is set for its NYC premiere just before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Despite the fact Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam cumulatively spent more than half a century caged for a crime neither man committed, NYPD brass again appears hell-bent on denying them justice. Instead, the focus now seems the monumental task of defending a quadrant of overzealous officers and an in lockstep corrupt battery of prosecutors.
It was the night of April 19, 1989 when the youths were collared after a night of what came to known as “wilding” in Central Park. When the dust had cleared, then 28-year-old Wall Street investment banker and Yale University business school grad Trisha Meili ended up raped and savagely beaten to within an inch of her life.
Admittedly, the teen victims were part of a crew of 30 to 40 teens that stormed the park from their East Harlem housing project that sweltering evening, cool beyond reason to the idea of having fun and causing ruckus. In all, countless victims were attacked and accosted that night, including a couple out bike riding, a homeless man several would-be joggers circling the park’s picturesque reservoir.
Yet, in essentially the same time it took NYPD to regain control of the perimeter, DNA and forensics tests revealed none of the evidence pointed to the five teens as suspects in the Meili attack.
That’s when officers apparently went to work, holding the teens—none of whom had a police record before then— for days and hours or, more to the point, until each of them had been manipulated, coerced and threatened to the point of confession.
“They were easy targets,” said Burns. “They had never been in the system… they were the most vulnerable to police tactics. They wanted to please and they wanted to go home.”
Instead, the teens, none of them older than16 and all sentenced as adults, soon found themselves confined to surroundings it seems safe to assume none could have ever imagined.
“We haven’t even received an apology and we feel that would be a start,” said Santana. Added Salaam “it feels great to have a voice now that’s not proceeded by animal, wolf pack, or any of those other derogatory, colorful statements.”
Even now, given the NYPD’s painfully persistent and condescending attitude, each man has been furthered shackled with the burden of finding his own brand of solace.
“We believe that, based on the information that the police and prosecutors had at the time, they had probable cause to proceed and the confessions were sound,” said Celeste Koeleveld, the city’s executive assistant corporation counsel for public safety.
“The plaintiffs' interviews go to the heart of the case and cannot be obtained elsewhere,” he added of the city’s decision to sue the filmmakers. “Mr. Burns has publicly sided with the plaintiffs and their families, who are seeking hundreds of millions from New York City. The movie has crossed from documentary to pure advocacy”
Ironically enough, both Burns and his daughter, Sarah, the film’s co-writer, contend city officials not only had a chance to be privy to much of the information gathered for the drama, but also a part of its production.
"We made every attempt, we practically begged to talk to prosecutors and police," said Ken Burns. "We didn't make an advocacy film; we made a film about the facts of the case and that is these men were wrongly convicted, and had years of their lives stolen. One of the things that was stolen from these men was their humanity…we'd have been happy to do the same to others involved, if prosecutors and police had returned our calls for interviews."
As for the merits by which city officials are seeking all their research, Sarah Burns added “we believe we are protected by the same shield laws as journalists. We will fight and argue this to the extent we can. We feel the law of precedent is on our side. We don’t have anything to hide.”
Matias Reyes confessed to the Meili rape in 2002 as well as a series of other rapes and assaults across the city. Evidence uncovered throughout the ordeal overwhelmingly supported his admission, including all advanced DNA and forensics level sampling.
Since then, police have worked as tirelessly at defending their actions as they did in investigating the case. Soon after Reyes’ confession, NYPD brass formed a panel to investigate how the case was handled. Composed of an active deputy police commissioner, a former cop and a one-time prosecutor, the panel eventually conceded that Reyes was indeed their man but that the five teen must have aided him and “subjected the jogger to some sort of attack.”
Back in those days, no voice resonated more profoundly than that of real estate mogul Donald Trump. Trump spent a small fortune taking out what seemed daily full-page ads in large newspapers demanding the death penalty for the jailed and since absolved teens.
“For the last ten years the City has refused to settle the civil rights lawsuit brought by these young men,” said Ken Burns. “This strikes us as just another effort to delay and deny closure and justice to these five men, each of whom was cleared of guilt even though they served out their full and unjustified terms. We strongly believe in the media’s right to investigate and report on these and other issues and that process.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.