Times moves quickly but the scars of the past linger. I realized this as I stood in front of my college class and made a plea for my students to see the new Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five. Many of them were born around the time of the notorious case on which the film is based; thus, the release of the documentary barely aroused a reaction from the young students.
Twenty three years ago, the nation was gripped by the case surrounding Trisha Meili, a White female jogger who was brutally beaten and raped in New York City’s most famous park. The crime was horrific and the New York Police Department and the City quickly moved to pursue a group of young Black and Latino males who were in the park that night.
On that fateful night of April 19th 1989, a group of teenaged boys entered Central Park and traveled around causing mischief: harassing other park guests, scrapping…things that are not atypical of adolescents, but nonetheless things that Black and Brown youth are often singled out for. The late eighties and early 1990s were times of intense paranoia in New York City because of an increasingly high crime rate. After Meili was found brutally beaten and near death, the NYPD arrested a number of boys for their misdeeds in the park that night. Through coercive interrogation strategies, they manufactured false confessions. In the end, they convicted and imprisoned five boys—despite no DNA linking the boys and the jogger as well as the grossly inconsistent facts in the “confessions” the five teenagers provided.
The problem is, the boys were were innocent.
The stiff penalties the Central Park Five received were due in part to the fact that their trial was seen as “a test case” for the judicial system on crime, particularly interracial crime. Long before Donald Trump was asking for President Obama’s birth certificate and academic transcripts he was raising clamor about the case of the Central Park Five. He took out a full-page ad asking New York to bring back the Death Penalty and to increase police presence. The ad further stirred hatred toward the boys and made their trial more public fiasco than a public pursuit of justice. News article after news article called for “justice for the jogger,” but shared little concern for the boys receiving justice and outright ignored the presumption of innocence; Black outlets, such as the Amsterdam News, were the only notable exceptions.
The Central Park Fives case is a one in a long line of “public trials” of Black males accused of sexual assaults like the Scottsboro Boys. The true rapist would not be known until 2002, when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and his DNA was matched to that found on Meili’s body.
Though the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated, the scars on their life remain. From having their names erroneously linked to one of the most heinous and public crimes of the 20th century, to having their lives change course due to unjust incarcerations, the Central Park Five have not seen justice. After having their convictions vacated in 2003, they sued the city for damages behind the ordeal. This October, the City subpoenaed all interviews and notes from the documentary, which is currently screening throughout the nation and later coming to PBS, likely with hopes of invalidating the suit that the five have brought against the city.
For many, ‘the Central Park Jogger case’ lives in infamy, yet the case of the five men falsely accused lives in obscurity. The public fascination with the case faded soon after conviction; the vacation of the conviction and the real rapist being found hardly made waves. While the media spotlight is often about rushed judgment, as a caring community concerned with social justice, we must keep the focus on justice for all. We should support the Central Park Five’s case against the City for having their lives irreparably altered. We must connect old and new patterns of police and criminal justice mistreatment our communities face by pushing for initiatives like the creation of an Inspector General, work to end the death penalty and support other policies that give communities greater ability to protect themselves. And critically, we must talk to our young people about their rights, our responsibilities, and make sure that injustices of the past and present do not fall into the dustbin of history.
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website.