| Opinion/The Review

Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

'The Central Park Five,' graphically told

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

Letters home ...

Traveling abroad for personal, educational or professional reasons?

Why not share your impressions — and those of residents of foreign countries about the United States — with Trib readers in 150 words?

The world's a big place. Bring it home with Letters Home.

Contact Colin McNickle (412-320-7836 or

Daily Photo Galleries

Saturday, April 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.


From Tom Paine's “Common Sense” to Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom's Cabin” to Martin Luther King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” American history is replete with examples of printed words accelerating social justice.

Still, from Mathew Brady's 1862 photo exhibit of “The Dead of Antietam” to the televised fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to the cameras that brought Vietnam into American living rooms, graphic journalism has exercised unique power to open minds and hence shape history.

It might do so again Tuesday evening when PBS broadcasts “The Central Park Five,” a meticulous narrative of a gross miscarriage of justice.

There were abundant dystopian aspects of New York City in the 1980s when crime, crack and AIDS produced a perfect storm of anxiety about the fraying social fabric. This was the context — a city on edge — when on April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman who worked on Wall Street went for a jog after dark in Central Park.

She became a victim of what was immediately called “wilding,” a word probably unknown by the four blacks and one Hispanic, ages 14 to 16, who were arrested and charged with raping her and beating her nearly to death.

After up to 30 hours of separate interrogations by detectives who are paid to be suspicious of suspects, four of the five confessed to a crime they did not commit.


Watch this documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns.

To see the old videotapes of the interrogations is to understand the dynamic that sent the five to prison in spite of the absence of evidence to bolster a rickety case that consisted entirely of those contradictory confessions.

One of the five recalls his interrogation:

“They pulled my father aside. Then my father came back in the room, it was like he just changed. He was like, ‘Listen.' He was like, ‘Tell these people what they want to hear so you can go home.' If he just, if he just would've stood his ground, I would've told the truth. I would've stuck to the truth.”

People determined to see every American social problem through the lens of race are missing the fact of class: Would the fates of five frightened, confused, exhausted and skillfully manipulated adolescents — badly represented by counsels, disastrously influenced by unsophisticated and bewildered working-class parents, and all swept up in a prosecutory and media storm — have been different if their skin had been white?

Probably not.

Remember, confident, affluent, educated, law-abiding Americans can be reduced to bewilderment by encounters with the IRS or even the local DMV.

What can be done to reduce the chances of miscarriages of justice like the one that robbed the Central Park Five of their youths?

Society's safety depends on determined detectives and tough-minded prosecutors who have the hard-edged skills necessary for coping with nasty people. But society's adversarial justice system depends on a countervailing cohort of public defenders more able than those on whom the Central Park Five depended.

Journalism, like almost every other profession relevant to this case, did not earn any honors.

Until now.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy

Most-Read Stories

  1. Steelers QB Roethlisberger not targeting Oct. 25 return
  2. Rossi: Time for Pirates to take next step
  3. Trump falls to Democrats in latest poll of swing states
  4. Steelers notebook: Tomlin not worried about Jones’ lack of sacks
  5. Penguins rally in wake of Dupuis injury
  6. New Florence assistant fire chief charged with having sex with juvenile
  7. Wolf still seeking to raise income tax, impose tax on shale-gas drilling
  8. Cubs’ Arrieta, Pirates’ Cole leave batters with little margin for error
  9. Fleury’s demeanor helps keep Penguins loose, him playing his best
  10. Same cast, improved results for Pitt defense
  11. How the Pirates put together another postseason contender