Arts & Events

The Central Park Five: The Tortured Confessions behind the 'Wilding' Hoax-- Now playing at the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley

By Gar Smith
Tuesday December 18, 2012 - 11:51:00 AM
Korey Wise, a child forced to confess to a crime he did not commit.
Korey Wise, a child forced to confess to a crime he did not commit.

If you think Bradley Manning is getting a bum rap (and he is), consider the case of the Central Park Five. 

In 1989, five Black and Latino teenagers were tried as adults and convicted of a savage attack on a white female jogger in Central Park. While other horrific crimes were committed in Manhattan the same week, it was this single interracial crime that became the "crime of the century" as the nation became transfixed by a threatening new term for out-of-control teen violence -- "wilding." 

The press derided the five young boys as a "teen wolf pack," "savage beasts," "mutants," "sociopaths." The vitriol was understandable. After all, the boys all signed written confessions and described their roles in the attack in a series of videotaped interviews. 

There was only one problem. They were all completely innocent. (It was only after the boys had served 6- and 13-year prison sentences that Matias Reyes, a serial rapist, confessed to the crime.) 

Boyhoods Interrupted 

Leaping adroitly from the tube to the big screen, TV documentarian Ken Burns reveals a sordid story of police corruption, public betrayal and personal suffering targeting "the most endangered species in America – the young, black man." 

This exceptional, nuanced and emotional documentary challenges the comforting assumption that we inhabit a "post-racial" America. Throughout this gripping, 119-minute film, Burns' respect for The Five is both palpable and profound. His on-camera interviews are compelling and emotional. 

After a visual prelude of striking photographs that capture the grit and poverty of the Harlem of the '70s and '80s, Burns introduces the five – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam. On screen, Salaam, Richardson and Santana are surprisingly wry, smart and articulate. Kevin, while not articulate, is emotionally exposed, frail and touching. 

Throughout the film, the interviews with the men (now in their 30s) are intercut with photos and film clips when they were children, boys and, finally, criminal suspects served up on the evening news. What's missing is the void between their youth and the painful reality that is their legacy as wounded, struggling adults. 

A Fateful Night in the Park 

A crowd of around 25 teens headed to Central Park to hang out. It was just "guys horseplaying -- jumping on each others' backs, beating each other up. Just horseplaying." But at some point, a few of the teens started throwing rocks, harassing passersby and "beating up a homeless guy … really bad." After watching a man bashed in the head with a beer bottle, the boys decided to head home. "The only crime I committed that night was I hopped the turnstile," one man tells Burns. 

Tears well up in his eyes at the memory of being tackled and manhandled by the cops who responded to the disturbance. "I'd never been arrested: Never had handcuffs on me." 

The kids were expecting to be released after being booked on a charge of "illegal assembly" but, at 1:30AM, a woman was found in the park -- near death, partially disrobed and suffering from a skull fracture. 

New charges filed. 

Vengeance and the Specter of 'Wilding' 

The attack provoked a media frenzy that inflamed the public, provoking both fear and anger. An NYPD official rushed to assure the press and the public: "We believe these five youths… were responsible." 

He chose his words wisely: He did not "we have evidence to believe the boys were involved." In fact, there was no evidence. No signs of struggle, no DNA matches, nothing that even tied the five to the time or location of the incident. 

So why did five young men confess (both in signed statements written in longhand and in videotaped interviews with investigators)? This is where The Central Park Five earns its stars. 

Why Do Innocents Confess? 

After listening to the candid recollections of The Five as they unburden themselves before Burns' camera, you'll never again accept a police confession at face value. 

We now know the kids were subjected to 14-30 hours of stressful police interrogations complete with shouts, verbal threats and physical abuse that amounted to psychological torture. "There was no food, no drink, no sleep and I didn't know when it was going to end." 

Eventually the cops told the terrified, exhausted boys: "Your friends have all confessed and named you." It was a lie but it had the desired effect. "I figured: they did it to me; I'll do it to them." "I made stuff up." Told they would be allowed to go home if they "told the truth," the boys struggled to make up stories. When their descriptions didn't match reality, the cops coached them to change their stories to be more "believable." 

Turning away from the camera and cringing at the sexually explicit details of his "confession," one of the Five tells Burns: "A 14-year-old boy doesn't talk like this. I was crying. [The cop] said: 'Don't worry. You did good. Everything's gonna be alright. I said it 'cause they told me to so I could go home." 

A Reign of Righteous Injustice 

The boys were bullied; convinced not to demand their right to legal counsel and placed before a videocamera. Videotape rolled and their fates were sealed. As one of the many officials interviewed by Burns observes: "Confessions will trump DNA [and even] change witnesses testimony…." 

Burns interviews the single juror who pointed out irreconcilable errors in the five different "confessions." After suffering the angry abuse of his fellow jurors, he finally decided to vote for conviction "just to get out of there." 

The woman who had been attacked made an amazing recover. Even though she had no memory of the attack, the prosecution put her in the witness stand. When the young woman grabbed the witness stand to steady herself, it was clear there was no way these young men were going to be freed. 

The prison experience was searing. "I had to grow up really fast." "I saw people dying over cigarettes." "Why me? I cursed God out a couple of times. My faith was gone." 

The Aftermath of Stolen Lives 

In one remarkable scene, Burns plays Mathias Reyes' confession tape for the Five. We watch a complexity of emotions play across their faces as they hear his words for the first time. 

The public was finally informed that the DNA from the crime scene matched Reyes. Reyes describes details of the assault that no one else could have known. Nonetheless, after the acquittal of the five innocent men, the NYPD investigated itself and found no grounds for complaint. The fog of "institutional protectionism" continued to spread over Manhattan as prosecutors, the press and much of the public refused to accept the dismissal; refused even to accept the facts. 

Left behind are five middle-aged men who lost their youth, were thrown into the lion's den of prison and now face damaged futures where "a huge gap of your life has been taken away from you." 

In 2003, the Central Park Five filed a lawsuit against NYC but, as Burns informs us, "the lawsuit remains unresolved."