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.


  1. Hello Gregory, and thanks for your comment. You are correct that there are no police or prosecutors quoted in the film, but that is because, for years, they refused many requests by Burns for interviews. Burns has been quoted in many news stories indicating that neither the NYPD nor the prosecutors would talk to him. So it is unfortunate that their side was not presented, but they effectively prevented that from happening themselves. The reaction of the NYPD has been, instead, to subpoena Burns’ interviews and interview outtakes.

    • Greg Walsh says:

      You are 100% wrong. The reason is that they have a multi million lawsuit against the city and are precluded from commenting because they may have to testify. Burns knows this and puts out the big lie that they won’t talk to them. a convenient and oft used trick by those who want only their side to be heard.

      • Greg: I’ve gone back and looked at all of the news coverage, statements, etc. that I could find. Best that I can tell, Burns did indeed make multiple attempts to interview the police officers and prosecutors involved. According to a former NYPD spokesperson, at least some of the officers wanted to talk to Burns. But because of the pending law suit by the former defendants, in which the city was indemnifying the police officers, the city ordered the officers not to talk. Thus according to these reports, that is the reason that police voices are not heard in the film. Of course, there were other sources for the police “side” for Burns to utilize, and he very well may have used them. But the failure to have those people on screen and telling their own stories seems to lie with the city, not Burns. In order to learn more about this, I have made inquiries with Ken Burns through his company, and I will report anything that I learn.

        • Gregory Walsh says:

          I have waited a year and a half for additional information as to why law enforcement, any law enforcement (Not just the principles) were not represented on the film. Is there an answer?

          • davidharrisauthor says:

            Gregory: You’ll see that I made two attempts to answer your question. If you don’t agree or don’t accept my answer for some reason, that is your right. But I did respond. I have no idea why no other law enforcement people who were not involved (I assume that’s what you mean) were not in the film, but not putting in people who did not have any role seems like a defensible choice.

            My inquiries to Mr. Burns, through his website, were not answered. What would be interesting to me, at this point, is whether those principal parties on the law enforcement side could and would speak now, since the case has been settled. Perhaps the settlement precludes this — I just don’t know.

  2. Gregory Walsh says:

    I have seen the film. It is one sided. No interviews of the principal detectives take place. The question,”What were you doing that night” was never posed to the five. They want you to believe that it is a non-fiction documentary but it is lacking law enforcement input and might as well be considered a work of fiction that is based on a true story. Not one of Ken Burns’ finest works. It is a piece of work with an agenda. It is a work of the Innocence Project which does good work but also frees the guilty. They are able to speak without debate because law enforcement are unable to respond for fear of suits and charges of racism. In a way, it is the Perfect Storm. A storm is created that cannot be stopped. Law Enforcement does its job and are precluded from responding to what follows regardless of the justification.

  3. Alfreada Brown Kelly says:

    WShen and Where can I see this film. I would like to show it to my class.

    • It is in general release, and you should be able to see it at select theaters now or very soon. (How easy this is will depend a lot on where you live — easier in NY and in major cities.) I don’t know when it will be available in a classroom setting, but I would think pretty soon.

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