A film by Ken Burns

Most of us know Ken Burns from his famous documentaries on the Civil War and Baseball but the Central Park Five is a complete departure that paints a devastating portrait of the U.S. criminal justice system.  In 1989, five black and latino teenagers were arrested and convicted of a brutal rape of a white female jogger in Central Park. This was the incident which the media called group of young people engaged in “wilding” and they publicized the Central Park Jogger case to the point where a fair trial was impossible.  The calls for street justice were plentiful.

The five spent 6 to 13 years in prison only to ultimately be pardoned when the real perpetrator, a serial rapist, confessed to doing the act alone.  Burns explores how a racially divided New York City, the media and the legal system worked to deprive these young men of their teenage years.  His portrayal of prosecutor looking to make a reputation for herself and defense counsel sleeping at the counsel table is devastating.  The anguish of the parents of these young men is portrayed as is the callousness of the police and prosecutors.

I have followed and supported the work of the Innocence Project for many years and am heartened and depressed at the number of people incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. The vast majority of these false convictions arise from faulty cross-racial identifications and false confessions.  Each of the Central Park Five eventually confessed to a crime they did not commit after hours of grueling interrogation by the police.

The Oregon Supreme Court in State v. Lawson established new procedures to determine the admissibility of eyewitness identification.  The courts are now required to review eyewitness testimony in a manner consistent with the vast research in the area of eyewitness identification and memory.  It is worth noting that there was no identification of the Central Park Five by the jogger because of the massive trauma which she received.

The Lawson decision was authored by Chief Justice DeMuniz. As a defense attorney he helped an innocent Mexican client who was falsely convicted due to being unable to understand the interpreter.  He spoke an Indian language rather than the spanish which the interpreter was using.  DeMuniz used his own resources to travel to Mexico and actually located the real perpetrator.  His client now works as a paralegal with Hispanic clients.

These cases demonstrate how fragile the protections of our constitution are and how quickly they can be lost without extreme vigilance.

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