Recall the 1989 case of the Central Park jogger: a young woman brutally beaten and sexually assaulted in Central Park. The suspects, five young black and Latino men, confessed while in police custody. Based on those confessions — there was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime, and their DNA did not match specimens at the crime scene — they went to prison. Years after the fact, a convicted rapist and murderer confessed that he had perpetrated the crime, acting alone. When his DNA did match, the five men were exonerated by a court.
This case is the newest subject for filmmaker Ken Burns, the man who has made widely-acclaimed multi-part PBS documentaries about baseball, the Civil War, and so many other aspects of American life and history. In “The Central Park Five”, Burns (joined by co-directors David McMahon and Sarah Burns, his daughter) tells a powerful story of injustice. A major focus of the film is a central question that will be familiar to readers of Failed Evidence: why would anyone ever confess to committing a serious crime, when the person did not do it? For example, here is Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, in a review heard December 3 on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition:
“The Central Park Five” also serves as a cinematic primer on what has become a disturbing aspect of our criminal justice system: the ability and the willingness of police to psychologically manipulate people into confessing to things they have not done.
Turan’s review lets one of the five exonerated men explain why and how such a thing could happen:
They had made up a story saying something like, uh, ‘well, we have your prints on her pants.’ I’m thinking, ‘how did they take my prints, and put it on her pants?’
Readers of Failed Evidence will recognize what happened here: lies about forensic results and forensic testing are among the perfectly legal interrogation techniques that increase the risk that an innocent person will confess.
Congratulations to Burns and his co-directors for bringing the full story of the case to the nation’s attention. The question I am most frequently asked, in presentations and interviews of all kinds, remains the same: why would anyone confess to something that the person did not do? Perhaps The Central Park Five will help give people an answer.