Russell and Duenes

The Central Park Five

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The level of this deadly “readiness” to do evil in all of its forms . . . is very high in almost everyone. It is no mere abstract possibility but a genuine tendency, constantly at work. It does not take much to get most people to lie, for example, or to take what does not belong to them, and shamefully little to get them to think of how nice it would be if certain others were dead. . . [T]hese “readinesses” for various kinds of wrongdoing will be constantly provoked into action by threatening circumstances. And when we act, others around us will, of course, react. And then we will react to them, and so forth, until we and others are stunned into quiescence by the spiraling disasters.     – Dallas Willard

Few films I have seen illustrate the above reality more than The Central Park Five, the 2012 documentary by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The documentary chronicles the experience of five Harlem youths (now men) who were wrongfully charged and convicted of the brutal beating and rape of a young, white, Wall St. investment banker as she jogged through Central Park one night in April, 1989. For those of my readers who are old enough, you’ll remember that this got heavy national attention. There was a group of some twenty young black and hispanic boys who entered Central Park that April night. They proceeded to accost and/ or beat up several people in the Park, but the rape was not part of their actions on this particular evening. Indeed, the five boys who were ultimately convicted of the rape were not in that part of the park when it happened. Rather, the rape was committed, we ultimately find out, by a serial rapist named Matias Reyes.

Let me begin by simply commending this documentary to you. Without reservation I give it five stars. The average Joe should see this film for its insight into human nature. But from now on, no law school student should be able to attain his or her J.D. unless he or she has seen the film and engaged in robust discussion of what is portrays. If I ever end up teaching some kind of pre-law courses at a Christian university (which I hope to do some day), this will be required viewing. For this film brings home to the viewer the “spiraling disaster” that comes of innate human sinfulness and folly. It is especially powerful because it shows us how our “readiness to sin” is stoked by the circumstances and realities of the world around us.

We dare not judge quickly, however, for we all may find ourselves somewhere in this cautionary tale. We begin by setting this rape in the larger context of a New York City coming out of a decades-long struggle with crime, as well as social and economic degradation. Racism has plagued the city, and thus, as the film points out, there is a sense of horror at the thought of a wealthy, white “upper East Side” woman being attacked and raped by “minority” youth. Indeed, a black woman had been raped and thrown from her roof in Harlem around the same time, and yet this received scant media attention. But when the white woman is raped, in sacrosanct Central Park, no less, the media’s rush to find some object of judgment is swift and powerful. And, if we’re honest, understandable.

The NYPD and New York City D.A.’s office had to be aware of this. Clearly they need to find the perpetrators, and find them in a decisive way. Apparently there was not much of a police presence in the park that night, but whatever their presence, they come upon these five boys, and the chain of events is set in motion. The documentary takes you through the handling of the boys initially, but the upshot is that the police and the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, get into these boys well enough to get them all to confess, in some form or fashion, to a crime they didn’t commit.

Why would the boys do that? Do people really confess to beatings and rapes they didn’t commit? One need only sit through a Criminal Law or a Criminal Procedure class in law school to find the answer, but it really shouldn’t take all that. The average person, myself included, has no idea what it is like to be subjected to police interrogation tactics. The level of pressure and fear can be enormous, and when that’s the case, people will act according to their short-term, selfish interests, which is what these boys did. As the film demonstrates, they were young, they were inexperienced, they were foolish, and they wanted to go home. So they confessed.

Most of them wrote out their confessions, but the D.A., Elizabeth Lederer, went further. She video-taped their confessions, and the City of New York went to trial with that, and just that. They had nothing to put the five boys at the rape scene. The cops had taken semen from the scene, but not a lick of it matched any of the five boys. Indeed, none of the DNA evidence matched any of the boys. The crime scene did not point to five boys attacking the woman, and the confessions were a mess of inconsistencies and inaccuracies. All of this could have been figured out by police or district attorneys who were looking for the truth. But they weren’t looking for the truth. They were looking for something else, the kinds of things that we all look for: Pride, reputation, ambition, social approval, comfort, security and the like. These things get mixed up with our good motives, and to paraphrase the apostle Paul, we do not understand that which we do. They had a story, and they needed to stick with it. Individual policemen were going to lie, if need be. It gave them a “home run” with the press, with the public, and with their own sense that they had gotten the bad guys. They were tough on crime, and New Yorkers, and the New York press, which dubbed the rape “The Wilding,” were going to know it.

One of the jurors who voted to convict the five boys speaks up in the film. The jury took ten days of deliberation before returning the verdict, and this juror saw the significant inconsistencies in the boys’ confessions and tried to get the other jurors to consider them, but they would not be swayed. After all, the boys had confessed, hadn’t they? And this overcomes everything else, because, in our misunderstanding of human nature, we think that no one ever confesses to serious crimes they haven’t committed. Yet ultimately, this juror simply “gave in.” He was tired, he wanted to get out of there, so he voted to convict.

The most powerful part of the film, and its most damning indictment of our sinful human nature, is its treatment of what happens after the boys are exonerated. We find the police justifying their own inept and wrongful conduct, and one of the prosecutors justifying herself by maintaining an assertion toward the five boys that, by the true rapist’s own testimony, was baseless. And why? Because, as one reporter in the film says: “This was institutional protectionism that was going on.” As another reporter points out, the D.A. who got it wrong, and who made a name for herself through the case has “got a lot to lose by saying, ‘I got everything wrong and I railroaded these kids into jail.'”

Regarding the press’ wrongful judgment of the crime, and failure to admit their wrongness later on, one reporter says: “I don’t think the press faced its mistakes. I don’t think the police department faced the truth of what had happened. Because the truth of what had happened is almost unbearable. By prosecuting the wrong people for this Central Park Jogger case, Matias Reyes continued to hurt, maim and kill, and they could have had him, but they got stuck with a mistake. And they’re still invested in that mistake.

One commentator said it best: “I want us to remember what happened that day and be horrified by ourselves, because it really is a mirror on our society. And rather than tying it up in a bow and thinking that there is something that we can take away from it and we’ll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is that we’re not very good people, and we’re often not.” Or as Dallas Willard also says: “It’s a vision sufficient to impart a vivid realization of our terrible readiness to mistrust God and hurt others and ourselves as we take things into our own hands. This sharp, heartbreaking realization of our condition silences all argument and hair-splitting rationalization.”

I cannot get this film out of my mind, likely because it causes me to shudder. I must face the sinful rationalizations and narratives in which I am “still invested,” and which might cost me a great deal to give up. I see that, I, too, am not a very good person, and I’m often not. I see in myself, in the daily choices with which I am confronted, my “terrible readiness to mistrust God and take things into my own hands,” and it is indeed terrible, though I often know not how terrible. “Lord, keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me.” (Ps. 19). I myself have aspirations of being a prosecutor or a defense attorney, and though I may not try any “case of the century” like this one, I would be naive and foolish to think that the choices faced by the attorneys in this case will not come to my doorstep. Character matters, and I’m reminded of what my Criminal Law professor, Michael Kaye, said about the tremendous power that judges, law enforcement personnel and attorneys have; power to put people in prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. It is the character of Christ I will need in such circumstances. The preparation must come now, before the time of testing is upon me.

-D

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Written by Michael Duenes

November 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Duenes, Ethics, Movies

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