Rough justice: New York’s teen ‘rapists’

When a young white woman was raped and left for dead in the heart of Manhattan in 1989, five Harlem teenagers were sent to jail. But all were innocent – a fact not all New Yorkers are aware of a decade after their eventual acquittal, according to the makers of a harrowing new film about the Central Park jogger case


The bare fact of the story is chilling almost a quarter of a century on. In the dusky light of April 19th, 1989, a young white woman was accosted while jogging through Central Park in Manhattan, violently attacked, dragged into a secluded green area, raped and left for dead.

The hours afterwards were a blur of swift police response, public outcry and the parading of five Harlem teenagers who confessed to the crime as the unrepentant faces of a mob that had embarked on a gleeful spree of violence and harassment in the park that evening.

New York was a dysfunctional and ailing city in the late 1980s: period buildings were boarded-up husks, the subway system’s stations were menacing and its trains and corridors a riot of graffiti, entire neighbourhoods were in the grip of a crack epidemic, and street violence, both casual and life-ending, was regarded as a consequence of daring to be a citizen of any of the five boroughs.

But this crime was the nadir. It stirred deep, unconscious fears, and the nature of the attack disturbed people in a way other violent crimes had not. As Ed Koch, as mayor of New York, said, “Central Park was holy.”

Those tranquil green acres had been a common playground since 1857. That a mob from a district many regarded as irrevocably ghettoised were now stalking women there was proof that civilisation was fragmenting. “They” even had a term for their rampaging: wilding. Overnight, the phrase became part of the lexicon of fear.

The jogger was not immediately named, and as she fought for life she became an Everywoman, the most shocking example of the fact that violent predators, in the form of young black men – could attack anyone at any time.

A desire to set the record straight was Sarah Burns’s chief motivation for making The Central Park Five , a harrowing documentary that traces the frenzied atmosphere leading to the wrongful conviction of Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Kharey Wise for the crime.

The first four, who had been 14 and 15 at the time and so been tried as juveniles, served their full sentences. Wise, who, as he had been 16, was tried as an adult and sentenced to between five and 15 years in jail, was released in 2002, after more than 13 years in prison, only after a chance meeting with another young man from Harlem at Auburn Correctional Facility, in upstate New York, where they were inmates.

Matias Reyes had also been in Central Park that night in 1989. A recidivist sexual offender, Reyes was the lone assailant; some pang of conscience at Wise’s incarceration prompted him to admit to being responsible for the attack and rape. Forensic evidence confirmed this. The convictions of the five were vacated, but in circumstances that were as subdued as those of the original convictions were incendiary.

Unfair and unjust
“The lack of fairness and justice is what so offended me about this story,” Burns says when we meet on a rainy Monday afternoon in Brooklyn, near the basement office of Florentine Films. “We actually got a little criticism for not being tougher on the NYPD and the prosecutors. But it wasn’t about trying to vilify them. We simply wanted to set the record straight, because a lot of people still don’t know that these men are innocent. They vaguely remember that ‘wilding’ case.

“And the other aim was to restore some of the humanity that was taken away when the boys were lumped together as this ‘wolf pack’ and the reaction was to lock them away. And to hopefully bring up the debate about how we stop this happening in the future.

“The victim represented resurgent New York, says Burns. “She worked on Wall Street. In race and class she was the opposite to these kids. There was a widespread assumption that these kids came from depraved circumstances.

“Kharey had a difficult childhood, but for the most part they were lower middle class. Yusef’s mom is a teacher. These were kids who were at school, playing sport, and had caring, loving parents. These were not children raised in crack houses. Raymond Santana’s dad told his son to go to Central Park that night because he felt it safer. Racial tensions were ratcheted up and the us-versus-them tension was heightened.

“Why was it so easy for people to believe that these kids committed this crime even after it became clear that there was no evidence to connect them other than these hugely problematic, inconsistent statements that they gave? It is because their guilt made sense to people. And then you have this sociological image of the criminal black man, which is a hugely pervasive and really dangerous idea and which recurs today.”

Civil case
Sarah Burns was a six-year-old living in New Hampshire in 1989. She was unaware of the case until a work placement took her to the law firm representing the five men in a civil case they are taking against the city of New York, which has been dragging on for a decade.

She became fascinated by it, and a book she wrote about it laid the foundation for the film. Understandably, the men were wary at first of speaking with her; words, after all, had led to their downfall in the hours after the arrest.

As would become clear, they had invented their roles in the crime. A gang of teenagers had indeed run through the park that night, and several people had been attacked. The five boys were on the fringes of the gang. But they had attacked nobody and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They retracted their confessions as soon as they were released from custody, protesting that they were pressured and coerced, but by then they had been cast as barbarians in a legal and media drama that demanded justice. Archive footage of their pretrial appearances shows skinny black teenagers looking sullen and dressed in oversized suits.

The language and commentary swirling around the city in the days of the trial shocked Burns as she researched the case. Donald Trump took out full-page advertisements in city newspapers calling for restoration of the death penalty; Pat Buchanan, a former presidential candidate, wrote an opinion piece suggesting, as Burns paraphrases, “that the eldest of the five should be hanged in Central Park and the younger boys horsewhipped”.

Their tone matched the public mood. Archive vox-pop interviews show indignant New Yorkers agreeing that it was time to turn to capital punishment, and there was a widespread belief that the boys were products of homes that lacked moral compasses.

The film does not flinch from drawing a comparison between the calls for “justice” and the lynch-mob mentality of the early-20th-century United States.

“When you see those adverts, you can’t but think of lynching,” says Burns. “Donald Trump calls for the death penalty in response to this case even though this was not a crime that was eligible for the death penalty, and these boys were too young anyway. They were boys.”

The film – a sombre presentation of the way lives were destroyed – does not suggest they were deliberately framed; rather, the detectives investigating the case were convinced they had the culprits and dismissed any evidence that indicated otherwise. The film-makers tried to interview the police officers and prosecutors involved but were rebuffed.

The most compelling voices in the documentary belong to the five accused – men approaching middle age now but, because their lives were stalled, perpetually caught between being the naive teenagers they were then and the adults attempting to cope with the aftermath they are now. All are exceptionally eloquent, and, as Burns says, graceful in their telling of the story.

One of five, Antron McCray, was willing to talk but couldn’t face being filmed, so we hear but don’t see him. “It was a challenge,” says Burns. “His story is so, so sad. He had this incredibly stable loving family unit. He was so close to his stepdad, and he just felt so let down by him that it ruined their relationship. The pain is right there in his mom’s face. Antron and his mom are just incredibly private, and he is a very shy person.

“Also, he has moved from New York and has changed his name: McCray is his stepdad’s name, and he created a new life for himself. So when the convictions were vacated it didn’t have any outward effect on his status. He was reluctant to speak in case he lost his job.

“And the effect of it all on the families was extreme. The family members saw the press bonfire every day and had coworkers and people on the street talking about this. The trauma for them is huge. You talk to Antron McCray’s mother now and it is like all of this happened yesterday.”

Stop and frisk
It might have happened yesterday: in 2013, objectors regard New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy as a flagrant breach of civil liberties. Within the past fortnight, there has been heavy tension between the NYPD and residents in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn over the death of a 16-year-old black teenager named Kimani Gray, on March 9th, after officers shot him seven times. Police accounts differ radically from those of witnesses.

The prevailing message of The Central Park Five – that for young black male New Yorkers the rules are shadier and more complex – ring as true as ever. The legal wrangle with the city continues to occupy the time and the minds of the five men, with little chance of an official admission of culpability.

But the film has brought a measure of recognition and apology. Kevin Richardson attended its screening at Toronto Film Festival last year and spoke about his experience. Five hundred people gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced, and he was too emotional to speak for several minutes.

Afterwards, he was standing outside the theatre with Burns when a member of the audience came up and said that the ovation was an apology. “Time and time again people stand up and say, ‘I remember the story. I thought you were guilty. I’m sorry.’ ”

For most people who remember it at all, any mention of the “wilding” case evokes vague memories of a best-forgotten period. As it turns out, even the phrase was most likely the result of an inadvertent fabrication. None of the men had heard the word, let alone uttered it. The best guess is that they were singing Wild Thing by Tone-Loc, a hit of the day, in the holding cell before they realised the gravity of the situation.

All but Antron McCray live in New York, a city that has been reimagined as prosperous and safe over the past two decades. Central Park, ice-coated and sparkling in winter and verdant in summer, remains a holy place and is, once again, a safe haven for joggers.

Trisha Meili, the primary victim that night, returned to full health and then chronicled what is a valorous story in her biography, I Am the Central Park Jogger. She ran the city marathon in 1995.

The Central Park Five will be broadcast in the US next month, on PBS. The last cinema still showing it in New York last weekend was the new Mist theatre on 116th street in Harlem – the heartland of where the boys had lived before the full fury of law and order descended on them. The woman at the ticket booth smiles in greeting, but her face clouds over when I ask if she has seen it. “Oh, I saw it all right,” she said quietly. “Saw it with my own eyes.”