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Burns turns to 'Central Park Five' for next doc

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

What a damn shame.

The sense of outrage “The Central Park Five” evokes is considerable. Five Black and Latino boys were convicted of brutally beating and raping a White jogger in Central Park in 1989. The case created a media firestorm; words like “wilding” entered the lexicon.

New York went insane, as did the newspapers and television stations that covered the city. These kids and the hideous violence they inflicted were surely a sign of the decline of civilization. If you were old enough to watch the news back then, you remember the case.

There is only one problem.

They didn't do it.

This is not a spoiler; we learn at the beginning of the film, directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, what really happened. But you'll notice something odd as you watch and your anger rises at the injustice of it all: The anger of the wrongly convicted does not.

Instead, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana are reflective, soft-spoken. There are a few tears shed as they think about what might have been. “I was at that point of coming into who I was, but I never really got there,” one says. But there is no rancor, at least none we can detect.

How could this happen?

The five confessed, for one thing. But video of their interrogations, along with their side of the story, suggests that they broke under repeated questioning and threats, along with promises. Each was told that one of the others had placed him at the scene. (They all withdrew their confessions almost immediately, but as one observer points out, that's damage that can't be undone. And he's right; I remember the case distinctly but wasn't aware that the convictions had been withdrawn.)

New York in 1989 was a city living in fear, we see from news clips. Indeed, the film does a remarkable job of evoking that time. (Dan Rather! Peter Jennings! Tom Brokaw! Remember when they and their brand of newscast mattered?) Prosecuting and convicting these boys became paramount, a balm for a city where crime was running rampant.

The boys weren't exactly busy with charitable works at the time of the attack, either. The beating and rape wasn't the only violent incident in Central Park that night; rocks were thrown at cars, a homeless man was beaten. The five say they didn't take part in the violence, but they were part of a larger group running around the park that night.

Even then, however, a timeline shows that the group was nowhere near where the rape and beating took place. There was no physical evidence linking the kids to the crime. DNA tests were negative.

No matter. The city demanded justice. All five were convicted. And all five served their sentences before a serial rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime. His story matched. So did his DNA.

At one point the filmmakers play Reyes' confession, while the five, interviewed individually, listen. The looks on their faces are heartbreaking. And still … no shouting. Just resignation. These are men moving on with their lives; several got college degrees in prison.

But that question remains for us: How could it happen?

The question for the five of them is more devastating: What might have been?

Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic for The Arizona Republic.

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