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Ken Burns discusses new film, 'Central Park Five'

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It was a horrific crime that made national headlines in 1989; a young woman, jogging late at night through New York City's Central Park, was brutally raped and left to die. After a media-fueled public furor, five young black and Hispanic boys were arrested and interrogated for 30 hours.  Four of the boys confessed to the crime but in a shocking twist 12 years later, the actual rapist, already serving a life sentence for other crimes, admitted that he committed the crime alone which was confirmed with DNA evidence.

In the new film, 'Central Park Five,' documentarian Ken Burns, along with daughter and filmmaker Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, set out to discover how and why five innocent teenagers were coerced into confessing to a crime they didn't commit and, in the process, tell the story of who they were then and now.

This fast-paced documentary airs on PBS (including MPBN) Tuesday, April 16th at 9 p.m.  

Dow:  Do you remember where you were or what you were doing when you heard about the 1989 Central Park jogger rape?  

Burns:  I do indeed. I was actually editing my Civil War series in New York and commuting from my home in New Hampshire. I remember that the cops and all of the newspapers were certain that these kids were guilty and we bought it all hook, line and sinker. This is a two hour film a relatively short one for me and it grabs you by the throat in the first minute and doesn't let you go. It's a rollercoaster ride.

These kids are falsely charged. There is a DNA sample but no match. This was a bloody crime scene with none of the crime scene on the boys and none of the boys on the crime scene. Thank God the 'crime of the century' as then-Mayor Ed Koch called it, was solved. These kids went to jail for 13 years for a crime they didn't commit. This is C.S.I. only real and not made up. It's the story of how these kids had their lives blasted but came out whole. The film asks some real tough questions about how we conduct our justice in this country.

Dow:  Why did four of the five boys confess to the crime if they didn't do it? 

Burns: This is the nub of it all. These were two 14-year olds, two 15 year olds and a developmentally-challenged 16-year-old who - by his own admission - was probably the mental and emotional age of 12. The cops have got them for 30 hours. There's no food no drink no parents for most of that time. There was definitely no lawyer. They (the cops) are saying 'Look, we know Raymond (Santana), you're a good kid, we know you didn't do it but the guy next door, Kevin, who you've never met before, is saying you did it.  We think Kevin did it and if you'll just place him at the scene, we'll let you go home.' Meanwhile, they're saying the same thing to Kevin (Richardson) and to Kharey (Wise) and to Antron (McCray) and to Yusef (Salaam) and it's a circular firing squad. These kids are tired, hungry and terrified and are just trying to help out.  One of them says 'I thought they were going to take me out back and kill me.' Then you begin to understand why, after 30 hours of 'I wasn't involved but if I say this, they'll let me go,' they said it.  

Dow:  What do you hope the viewer will take away from watching 'Central Park Five?'

Burns:  I want them to take away a little outrage, which we have. If they are so moved, write a letter to (current mayor) Michael Bloomberg.  These kids were exonerated after serving their full sentences. 10 years ago, they launched a civil suit against the city which is normally settled in a few months or, if it goes to trial, maybe a year. It's 10 years later and the city continues to put the slows' on this and refuse to admit that they made a mistake. You've made a mistake, I've made a mistake everyone has. The real measure of who we are is what we do when we've made a mistake. Do we cover it up? Do we blame it on others? Or do we finally admit that we made a mistake? The city even subpoenaed all of our outtakes and notes in a cynical fishing expedition to find inconsistencies in their (the boys') testimony. We hired a lawyer at great expense and a federal magistrate rebuked the city and quashed the subpoena and they're appealing that! I suggest that you fasten your seat belt securely because this film is a bumpy but exciting ride. 

The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard each morning on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.3,104.7and 107.7.

Watch Central Park Five Trailer on PBS. See more from Central Park Five.

Last modified on Friday, 12 April 2013 09:19

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