Lessons From The Central Park Five: The Tragedy of False Accusations

January 2, 2014

Ken Burns’s recent documentary The Central Park Five tells the story of five Black and Latino teenagers arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. The teens were widely portrayed in the press as part of a “wolf pack” in the midst of a Central Park “wilding” spree that included vandalism, assault, rape, and attempted murder.

The boys, who were in the park at the time of the assault, were rounded up and arrested by police. All of them denied attacking the woman, or even knowing that it had occurred. But the police, under pressure to make an arrest and reassure the public that the famous Manhattan park was safe (especially for wealthy white female investment bankers) quickly decided they had the right suspects. After hours of interrogation the teens began to confess to their role in the attack, incriminating both themselves and each other. They later retracted their confessions, saying they had been prompted and coerced, but it made little difference. They soon stood trial as the case erupted across New York and across the country. While a few friends and family members stood by them, the accused found themselves largely abandoned. After all, they fit society’s assumed profile of the presumed assailants: young feral minorities.

The victim was rendered unconscious by the attack and could remember nothing of its circumstances, including whether or not the five teens brought to trial had in fact attacked her. All five were convicted, and each of them ended up spending between six and eleven years in prison. Several of the men were offered early parole if they would express remorse for their crime, but they refused to admit to something they did not do, and returned to prison.

The jogger eventually made a significant recovery, the men left prison still maintaining their innocence, and politicians and public reassured the public that justice had been done. Yet the case was not over: the men were finally exonerated in 2002 when convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, already serving a life sentence for other crimes, admitted that he had in fact assaulted the woman, and acted alone. DNA evidence confirmed his confession, and he gave accurate details of the attack that were not publicly known. Based upon this and other evidence, the men’s convictions were eventually vacated. But as this documentary shows, being cleared and getting justice are two different things.

The Central Park Five is based on Sarah Burns’s book about this case, and co-directed by Burns, her husband David McMahon, and her father, noted documentarian Ken Burns. The sociocultural context of an event is crucial to understanding what happened, and The Central Park Five does an excellent job of setting the stage: a crime-ridden New York City awash in a new crack cocaine epidemic. Racial tensions were high, fomented in part by outrage factory Al Sharpton, who only a few years earlier had been in the center of another infamous travesty of justice when a Black teenager named Tawana Brawley claimed to have been harassed, beaten, and sexually assaulted by a group of white men. Further investigation revealed that Brawley had lied about the attack, and falsely accused several innocent men of assaulting her. As this film reminds us, the oft-heard social justice demand to “believe the victim” assumes of course that the true victims can be correctly identified. Yet sometimes the true victim is a person who has been falsely accused, and almost no one believed five of the six victims in this case.

The truth was revealed in stages. The first came when the actions of the victim were closely investigated; this revealed that she could not have been attacked by the five teenagers, who were in a different part of Central Park at the time. Things got even worse for the police when no DNA evidence from the suspects matched anything on the victim or at the crime scene. It is virtually impossible that two or more of the men had raped the victim, struggled with her, and attacked her without a single one of them leaving any trace of their presence.

Still, the district attorney and the NYPD detective squad pressed forward on the strength of the teens’ confessions. Though juries and the public find confessions to be very persuasive-after all, why would anyone admit to something they did not do?-psychologists know very well that false confessions can and do occur. Confessions need not be beaten or tortured out of a person; sometimes they can come after hours of psychological pressure and exhaustion. The Central Park Five were scared teenagers who were promised that they could go home if they just told police what they wanted to hear. When someone is put under sustained pressure, they may tell their interrogator whatever they want to hear to make it stop, whether truthful or not.

European inquisitors working on behalf of the Catholic Church used gruesome and inhumane methods to torture confessions out of heathens and the devout alike. False confessions were also a hallmark of the Salem Witch trials here in America, in which innocent women were beaten and tortured into admitting they had practiced black magic, consorted with the Devil, changed into animals, and more. Some people have even falsely confessed to crimes without even being asked: In 2006 an Atlanta man named John Mark Karr confessed to the unsolved murder of six-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey, whose death a decade earlier became a sensational homicide case. Karr was arrested by police, who soon determined that he could not have committed the crime he confessed to.

The false confessions aside, the real issue in this case was a failure by police, prosecutors, and the public to question the narrative presented to them. Evidence of the accused’s innocence was not hidden; it was there for those who wished to examine the case closely. Even today, New York City has not owned up to its role in this outrage. Not a single police officer or detective involved in the case agreed to appear in the film; most have closed ranks and refuse to discuss the case.

In the film, historian Craig Steven Wilder explains that the injustice done to the men will continue as long as those who made, repeated, and fueled the persecution and false accusations fail to acknowledge their role in the tragedy: “These were five kids we tormented, we falsely accused, we pilloried in the press… we attacked, we put them in jail, we falsely convicted them. And when the evidence turned out that they were innocent we gave a modest nod to fairness and we walked away from our crime.” Saul Kassin, a social psychologist who appears in the film, explains why it is often very difficult for people to change their minds once they have decided that a person is guilty: “The problem is that once you form a strong belief that someone is guilty of a crime, the contradicting details are just that: they are details that don’t fundamentally change our belief in their guilt.”

Ken Burns, in a featurette DVD commentary, notes that in the process of talking with people about the case he often found that while many remembered the basic facts of the case-that a white jogger was raped and beaten in Central Park and that five minority teenagers were arrested for the crime-relatively few were aware of their follow-up exoneration despite making national news. Some believed the men had gotten out of jail on a technicality; others thought they had been released from jail after a few years by Reyes’s confession. In fact the men had served their full sentences. Their eventual exoneration had not spared them any time in prison, and accusations of sexual assault are especially damaging for innocent people because they carry significant social stigma, and in some cases even a requirement of placement on sex offender registries. The mere accusa
tion by itself was enough for many people to assume that the men must have been guilty of something. The idea that they could be completely innocent victims of circumstance occurred to precious few.

When people think of “mob mentality” they may envision pitchfork-wielding peasants hounding Frankenstein’s monster through a medieval village. That sort of caricatured mob mentality, though harmful, is at least often recognized for what it is. Mob mentality, however, is no less dangerous when it plays out in newspapers, cable news, on Twitter, and elsewhere. The real lesson of The Central Park Five is that the motives and mechanisms that led to this serious injustice are not foreign or exotic; they are mundane and inside all of us when we rush to judge and fail to demand evidence.

There are many documentaries about apparent cases of grave injustice, including The Thin Blue Line (1988); Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and its sequels; and Capturing the Friedmans (2003). The Central Park Five falls squarely into this genre. The film has some flaws; it lumbers in places and veers toward advocacy instead of objective reporting. On the other hand all documentaries have a viewpoint, and the fact that those who were involved in prosecuting and persecuting these teens refused to explain or defend their actions is hardly the fault of the filmmakers. The Central Park Five is a timely and important case study in the consequences of rushing to judge.