'Central Park Five' airing on PBS illuminates racial biases in justice

OPINION - The documentary might be easier to stomach if 'justice' had improved since then. But it’s not so far fetched that this could happen now, is it?...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

If I’d known last week that last night PBS would air the The Central Park Five, a documentary about the black and brown Harlem-bred boys wrongly convicted for raping, assaulting and attempting to murder “the Central Park jogger,” I still would have paid the money I did to see it sooner.

I listened to friends sing the film’s praises when it debuted in theaters last November. I was interested in the subject matter, of course. How could I not be? I didn’t even live in New York in 1989. Yet, off in the suburbs of Maryland, the brutal beating and rape of a white woman allegedly by a “pack” of black and brown male teens who confessed to the crimes, then recanted — claiming they had been coerced by the NYPD — was a hot topic for the local news. We followed the trial through the convictions, and I, at 9 years old, don’t recall anyone ever questioning the boys’ guilt. It was a given that they did it.

“In the back of my mind I knew we wasn’t going to beat this case,” said one of the wrongfully convicted men, Raymond Santana, in The Central Park Five. “It was in the paper too much, too many people were against us… People had washed their hands with us.”

The background

I’d moved to New York by 2002, the year the real attacker of the Central Park jogger, Matias Reyes, came forward with the truth. He had raped and beaten the victim — and DNA backed up his confession. The convictions of the five innocent boys — by then, men — were vacated. Few could believe, or didn’t want to believe, that the boys who had confessed all those years ago were actually innocent. Donald Trump, who infamously called for the restoration of the death penalty to punish the boys — teenagers — didn’t even put forth the effort to apologize.

A decade later, the city still has not admitted to any wrongdoing and a civil suit for $250 million is pending.

I knew enough of this before watching the film. It was enough to determine that a chunk of five young men’s childhoods had been stolen. They were railroaded by institutions that were supposed to protect them. Even if they could win their civil suit, there is no amount that could be paid to restore their lost time, ameliorate their hurt and anguish or make up for the unfairness of it all. The idea of the injustice and inhumanity that led to their convictions, sentencing, and lost years in jail angered me just to contemplate it.

So I avoided seeing The Central Park Five because of that. I figured I’d get around to it on that elusive “someday” when we’ll all do the things that we’ve been putting off as long as possible. But then a friend, one who had seen the documentary already, asked if I had seen it yet. I told him the long version of the truth, to which he replied, “D, you gotta see it.”

At 1 a.m., I opened my laptop and rented it from Amazon Instant video.

What you should know

The Central Park Five is biased toward the wrongfully convicted teens, not only because Reyes’s confession means the young men first convicted of the rape and assault are innocent, but also because the prosecutors and police who worked the case declined to participate in the documentary.

This pissed me off, as expected, but for reasons I didn’t expect. I remembered the highlights, not the details, from the coverage of the case from my childhood. This makes sense because they real story wasn’t widely reported, at least not in my hometown. The real story? When I learned the real story, the circumstances became even more appalling.

To call the facts revealed in the film “disturbing” is a gross understatement. None of the boy’s DNA — yes, they could test it back then, which surprised me — matched what was found on the victim. The jogger was beat bloody, but there were no blood-soaked clothes for evidence. The location of where the jogger was assaulted didn’t match with the boys alleged other misdeeds in the park.

The only “evidence” the prosecution had of the young men’s involvement were their taped and coerced confessions — which the boys gave after being berated by police, and deprived of sleep for 14 to 30 hours. (I found myself yelling, “Law-yer!! Law-yer!” at my computer screen at one point, like it would make a difference.)

The confessions contradicted each other, but that didn’t matter. The boys, aged 14-16, were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Childhoods lost through a lack of justice

Yusef Salaam, another of the wrongfully convicted young men, recounts how police showed up at his building looking for him because his name was on a list. Salaam was with his friend Korey Wise, whose name was not on the list. The officer said to Wise, “You can come downtown with your buddy. You’ll be right back.”

“I can home seven years later,” Salaam recalls. “[Wise] came home 13 years later.”

At 16, Wise was sent to Riker’s Island. His father died while he was in prison.

The NYPD needed a conviction.

So much didn’t make sense, but so much for those boys’ childhoods.

Have things changed?

The documentary might be easier to stomach if “justice” had improved since then. We could all watch, shake our heads at the shame of it all, and be thankful our court system and police officers have evolved. But it’s not so far fetched that this could happen now, is it?

Black and brown boys and men at the wrong place at the wrong time are still targeted with the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk practices, during which 87 percent of those stopped “just happen” to be black or Latino, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. In the worst case scenarios, bad timing, like say Sean Bell leaving his bachelor party, or Amadou Diallo reaching for his wallet, leads to an untimely demise.

The only bright spot in this story is that Trump’s plea to execute teenage boys wasn’t taken more seriously. At least they are now men still here to tell their truth, one that has been overlooked, ignored, and still uncompensated for, for far too long.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk.