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Book Review: The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes by Sarah Burns

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Author Sarah Burns takes readers through the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case in The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes. Five young men, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray, who came to be known as the Central Park Five, were all convicted of the rape of Trisha Meili. Over a decade later, the actual rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed, and the young men’s convictions were overturned, but the case is still surrounded by controversy.

Burns’s main agenda is to underline the racism that contributed to the arrest and conviction of the youths. She digresses into multiple historical accounts of lynchings; of innocent black men who were tortured and hanged after being accused of raping a white woman. They are sobering stories, but don’t completely parallel what was believed at the time to be a gang rape of a young woman. Burns makes a good case for the police forcing confessions and not looking for an alternate suspect, but considering the multiple related crimes perpetrated by the kids that evening, and the severity of Meili’s injuries, their tunnel vision, while unjust, is understandable. “The detectives who interrogated them,” the author argues, “believed that they were guilty from the start, and the legal–if questionable–tactics used by those detectives to extract the confessions, along with other subterfuges that probably crossed the line, caused a series of reactions in all the young men, and sometimes their families, which eventually led to coerced confessions.”

But not just the police were bent on painting the boys as guilty before they had even been tried. “… Media coverage also employed blatantly racist language and imagery,” Burns points out. “Animal references abound. When referring to the suspects, the words Wolfpack and Wilding were used hundreds of times and came to be emblems of the case, a shorthand that nearly everyone used and that still elicits memories of the Central Park Jogger’s rape in many minds.”

Burns objects to the terminology, but her description of the night’s events confirms that the group of teens, although not rapists, were a roving group who set out to do some damage. They attacked a man they called “the bum,” a pair of tandem bicyclists, and several male joggers during the course of the evening.

I lived in New York at the time of this case. I don’t remember it as being as depressed and crime-ridden as Burns reports—New York has always been a city where crime happens and people, especially women, are afraid to walk through a dark park at night. But what happened to the Central Park Jogger, the violence of the attack, and the belief that it was part of a larger series of crimes, struck fear in New Yorkers, especially women. There were, as Burns writes, countless sensationalized reports on the television news and in newspapers about “wildings” and “wolfpacks.” She relates all the finger-pointing that went on in the media to keep the story alive and to continue to cast blame on the boys and anything else reporters could think of—it’s the teens’ fault, their parents’, the state of the city, society as a whole.

The trials were a circus, with so many suspects being tried at the same time, and by less than competent lawyers. No DNA or semen samples could be connected to any of the teens in the park that night, or the ones on trial for rape. The media, including the New York Times and Daily News reported as much. A column in Newsday reported, “we are waiting to see if there is any believable evidence that will connect these kids to the crime. So far, we haven’t heard any.” But the weak case that the prosecution put forward didn’t seem to matter.

The detectives lied. The teens lied. Meili had no memory of the attack. But it was still enough for the jury to find them guilty and for the judge to sentence them as adults. Five other teens involved in the park attacks that night all pled to lesser charges. Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray were convicted. Because they were juveniles (apart from Korey, who was 16 when he was arrested), their terms were limited to 5-10 years. In a rare show of compassion, hard-as-nails Judge Galligan only imposed a 5-15 year sentence on Korey for assault.

Burns describes the crime spree that the real rapist, Matias Reyes, also known as the Eastside Slasher, went on prior to the attack in Central Park. He attacked and raped several women, usually in their own homes, after following them, or making some excuse to enter their apartment. He raped and killed one young pregnant woman while her three young children were locked in a nearby bedroom. He was eventually caught and convicted and sentenced to 33 years to life in prison.

Amazingly, years later Korey and Reyes found themselves more than once at the same prison facility, and in late 2001, after talking with Korey and feeling guilty, “Reyes confessed to a prison employee that someone else at the prison was serving time for a famous crime that he had in fact committed.”

Although the reader knows in general how the story will come out, Burns still tells a compelling, suspenseful story. Although the Central Park Five have all been declared innocent, the case, in some ways, is far from over. The NYPD, nervous about how the overturned convictions reflected on how they ran their original investigations, came up with their own report discounting the new findings and Reyes’s confession. There is a civil case against the city, police, and prosecutors still pending. Burns has collaborated with her father, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, on a theatrical film based on her book. Hopefully this book and the film will help to finally bring to light the innocence of the Central Park Five and what happened on that night in New York all those years ago.

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