Film Gives Voice to Men Falsely Convicted in Central Park Jogger Case

PHOTO: One of the five defendants, Yusef Salaam walks into courthouse with police in The Central Park Five.

In one of the most controversial crimes of the century, five black and Hispanic teenagers were convicted in the 1989 rape and beating of Trisha Meili, known at the time only as the "Central Park jogger." Having already served between 5 and 13 years for the crime, the young men, known by many as the "Central Park Five," were exonerated in 2002 based on DNA evidence.

Judge Charles Tejada overturned the convictions of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam after a murderer and serial rapist, Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and matched the DNA found on Meili after the assault.

A new film called "The Central Park Five," released 10 years after their exoneration, shines a spotlight on what went wrong -- how reporters, politicians, police officers, jurors and lawyers failed to do their jobs, and how instead, public opinion helped convict five young men of a crime for which there was very shaky evidence. Despite there being no DNA matches or witnesses to link the teens to the murder, the boys were found guilty.

The biggest factor against them were four videotaped confessions that the suspects gave in police custody. The Central Park Five now say those confessions were coerced from them under exhaustion, intimidation and duress.

The attack against the 29-year old white investment banker was so brutal that Meili's skull was crushed and she lost almost 80 percent of her blood. The crime captured attention of the racially divided New York City of the late 1980s, and the public was eager to make a conviction. The five teens who were in Central Park that night -- painted in the press as a "wolfpack" known for "wilding" --- seemed to fit the bill for many in a divided New York.

Essayist Joan Didion argued in a reflection on the case in 1991, long before the exoneration of the Central Park Five, that the crime embodied a larger struggle the city was undergoing, and that white against black narratives clouded the better judgement of the reporters, police and jurors involved:

"So fixed were the emotions provoked by this case that the idea that there could have been, for even one juror, even a moment's doubt in the state's case… seemed, to many in the city, bewildering, almost unthinkable: the attack on the jogger had by then passed into narrative, and the narrative was...about what was wrong with the city and about its solution," Didion wrote.

The new documentary lays out the multitude of injustices committed against the five teens, now men. For them, the film has been "therapeutic," Kevin Richardson, one of the wrongly accused, told MSNBC.

"We were just kids. People don't realize really how young we were," he said. "We were just 14-years-old. They took it all from us." When accused, the five young men were between 14 and 16 years old.

Although the new documentary, released in late November, has received mostly rave reviews, it does have its critics. The New York Times' Manohola Dargis took issue with the film's exclusion of certain nuances of the case, including evidence that was not flattering to the five men. In multiple newspaper interviews with neighbors of the teens, they were described as being "sometimes violent neighborhood troublemakers," according to Dargis. But that didn't make it into the film.

"Maybe the filmmakers thought that this history might muddy the waters and cast suspicion on the teenagers all over again. The problem is that by ignoring it — as well as gliding rather too fast over the gang attacks on the other people in Central Park on April 19 — it seems as if there were something here that needs to be hidden," Dargis wrote.

Still, for the five men accused of committing the "crime of the century," as described at the time by Mayor Ed Koch, the documentary feels like a small victory.

"For so long we didn't have a voice," Raymond Santana told MSNBC. "But this documentary is giving us our voice back."

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