Why the Ken Burns documentary “The Central Park Five” finally turned me against the death penalty

I’ve been a holdout, declining to join the progressive movement to abolish the death penalty everywhere in the United States and the world. I’ve thought that in an open, democratic society with a fully developed modern legal system and lots of lawyers, there would be no risk of error in high stakes, high profile criminal cases.

The documentary “The Central Park Five”, by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, recently broadcast on PBS, has finally convinced me that I was wrong. Everyone should see this fine piece of filmmaking the next time it’s broadcast or appears again in a theater, or if it becomes available on the internet.

The basic story is this: In 1989, a young, white, professional woman working on Wall Street went for a jog at night in New York City’s Central Park. She was found the next morning brutally beaten and raped, just barely alive, with no expectation that she could survive.

I remember clearly and personally the anger and fear that this crime generated throughout the country but especially, obviously, in New York. Media coverage of the crime was non-stop. The pressure on the New York Police Department to apprehend the perpetrator was at maximum intensity.

The police proceeded to extract confessions to the crime from five black and Hispanic males between 14 and 16 years old. The media and politicians demanded maximum punishment for these depraved savages. One commentator in the film observes that the anger level was so high that, 50 years earlier, these young men might all have been lynched without a trial.

Prosecutors celebrated their victory in obtaining guilty verdicts against all the young men, tried as adults, based solely on their confessions, even though DNA evidence from the crime scene did not match any of them, and the defendants insisted their confessions had been coerced.

All the defendants served their full sentences of between 6 and 13 years before another man, a convicted rapist whose DNA had been in the possession of the NYPD, confessed to the attack on the Central Park jogger. There was a definitive DNA match to this confessed and convicted rapist, and the convictions of the Central Park Five were finally vacated in 2002. Oops!

Throughout their ordeal, the Central Park Five insisted on their innocence. At their parole hearings when asked, as a condition for parole, to admit to the crime for which they had been convicted, they refused to do so, and so had to serve out their full prison sentences.

So much for my theory about developed, modern legal systems with plenty of lawyers. I doubt that any place has a more developed legal system, or a greater concentration of lawyers, than New York City.

An unusual hero appears in the film. In addition to the defendants’ families who stood by them and insisted on their innocence from beginning to end, a young and then very overweight Reverend Al Sharpton, who now hosts an evening talk show on MSNBC, appears in the film leading a noisy but seemingly hopeless demonstration at the time of their trial asserting the innocence of the Central Park Five.

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