None of the games on were interesting, so I was flipping through the channels. Suddenly, at the top of the hour, appeared the new Ken Burns documentary, “The Central Park Five.” I had heard of it, seen a trailer perhaps, hadn’t wanted to see it. It’s the story of the imprisonment on false charges of five teenagers, four black and one Hispanic, for an horrendous rape and assault which took place in New York City 24 years ago.
Anyone in New York then would remember the crime. It was the most shocking crime of a decade full of them: a young woman, talented and working on Wall Street, was jogging in the park, near the reservoir, around 11 PM—not unusual in the city that never sleeps. She was brutally raped and assaulted, her head pounded and brain damaged—left for dead. She made a partial recovery, but never again functioned at her previous level.
At the time I was about four months into a job at the New York Post editorial page—a job I had taken as a kind of mission, to do everything in my power to help prevent the city from sliding into something like Newark or Detroit. That then seemed a real possibility. Despite a financial recovery during the ’80s, crime was rampant. The murder rate rose every year, as did all the lesser crimes: shootings, stabbings, muggings. The police seemed overwhelmed. They and the city’s political class, led by Mayor Ed Koch, were under constant rhetorical assault for their alleged racism—which the media (except for the undeceived and uncowed Post editorial page) considered as if it might be fact. A few years prior, Al Sharpton and two black radical attorneys had held much of the metropolitan region hostage by gumming up the legal system, a campaign culminating in their touting of a false rape charge made by a young black girl, Tawana Brawley. If you read carefully the accounts of these case in the Times, you could probably figure out that the racism charges they broadcasted were substantially groundless, but the general atmosphere pointed in one direction—racist cops, a racist mayor. Meanwhile if you were trying to go about your lawful day-to-day business on the streets or in the subway, you often felt under a genuine sense of menace from groups of young black males. You and pretty much every other person you knew had been mugged at knifepoint, or had apartment or car broken into. It was a constant. No one, it seemed, could do anything about it. The basic reality seemed to pervade every aspect of life in the city, and certainly (no matter how much one wished otherwise) influenced the way one looked at black people.
Ed Koch, a friend of the Post (and later a friend of mine) was running for a fourth term, and being challenged by David Dinkins—who seemed at one moment sensible and moderate, at another, a front man for the very black radicals seeking to undermine the moral basis of the criminal justice system.
Months before the critical Democratic primary, the woman in Central Park was raped. The sheer horror of the crime was eased slightly by the rapid arrest of suspects. Boy, the NYPD was good. There had been, on that warm spring evening, a night of wilding: some 30 youths had descended on the park from Harlem, committing mayhem on the late night reservoir joggers. Some were robbed and beaten, but except for “the jogger” they escaped serious harm.
What few people in the city knew was that the case against the Central Park Five was contrived. The cops got the kids, five of the perhaps eight they had picked up that evening. But they knew they had, in addition to the other robbery and mayhem victims, a woman hovering near death. They needed suspects, confessions. The city needed closure.
The five were young, between 15 and 17, easily confused. The cops separated the five and coaxed individual confessions—each of them, exhausted, gave up a part of the story. Their alibi, had they thought to use it, was that they were in another part of the park half a mile away, assaulting other people. But none of the five thought to use it. In the city, in the journalistic community, and certainly at the Post, no one thought much of the fact that there was no matching DNA evidence with the rape victim. Who knew about such things? They had the confessions, didn’t they? Moreover, the only people in the city claiming the kids were innocent were the black press and activists who had already discredited themselves by making false charges, and their slogan—“The Boyfriend Did It”—was hardly likely to appeal to fair-minded people who might have questioned the discrepancies in the prosecutions case.
Soon after the confessions, the boys recanted. But no one believed them. Several months later, a violent serial rapist was arrested. Years later, in prison, he owned up to the jogger assault.
Ken Burns film does a good job relating the mechanics of acquiring the false confessions, some of which are still on tape. When I saw first photos of the suspects, it struck me they didn’t have that blank dead-eyed look that one had learned to associate with teenage murderers. They looked instead kind of normal, as if they could have been classmates in my kids’ (private) school. They had parents vouching for them. But we all, at the conservative Post and elsewhere (including even liberal tribunes like the famous Pete Hamill) believed the cops.
If Burns’s film has a failing, it is its failure to explore the real thoughts of the detectives, or subsequently, the two prosecutors, Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, who put their game faces on and successfully prosecuted young people most in the city thought deserved to rot in jail. We now want to know whether the two suspected at the time their case was bogus. They must have, it seems to me. They had authority, and expertise, and they misused it. On the other hand, they had ambitions, and a city which needed arrests and convictions. Some unseen voice—expressing the general will of crime-fearing New York—must have overridden their professional judgment.
In the Burns film one sees a lot of young men, released from prison in 2002, now in their 30s, getting along more or less okay though robbed of their youth. They appear weary, sensitive. It’s odd to see their faces, so familiar to newspaper readers in those years 1989 and 1990, so different now but still so easily recognizable.
There’s no obvious moral here. The New York cops, I continue to believe, are as good a major-city police force as exists in the contemporary world. Still they made a terrible mistake. Those who believed them included everyone I knew in New York City, including some very smart and accomplished people. It’s a recognition which humbles.
Update: An earlier version of this post was run prematurely, it has been updated.