The Central Park Five is a documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns. Sarah Burns also wrote a book by the same name (Knopf, 2011; reprint 2012).
In 1989, a female jogger was raped in Central Park. Five teenagers, all African American, were questioned, confessed, and arrested. They recanted and plead not guilty. All were convicted and served their full sentences. The oldest, sixteen at the time, served his time in adult prison.
Years later, someone else confessed to the crime. His confession (unlike that of the teenagers) matched the facts of the case; his DNA (unlike that of the teenagers) matched the DNA found at the crime scene.
This documentary is the story of the teenagers; why the confessed to something they didn’t do; the trial; the second confession; and their lives now.
I haven’t read the book, but I’m adding it to my list because while the documentary is stunning, I had a lot of questions that I think the book will answer.
This would be a great documentary to show to students for several reasons. It’s about teens, even if its now grown men relating their stories. And it’s about what those teens go through because of people being convinced that the teens were guilty when, in fact, they were not. Adults may watch thinking “what if this happened to my son;” teens will watch thinking, “what if this happens to me.”
The Central Park Five is a look at a specific time and place that is not so long ago. When talking about this documentary on Twitter, it was pointed out by Sofia Quintero that “in contextualizing the case it didn’t give equal weight to the racial terror of the time.” So, while this does show some things, those using this with teens would probably want to bring more information and resources on what was going on in New York City at the time.
While the racial terror is important to understand, it’s also important to just understand that false confessions do happen. A “false confession” is someone confessing to something they did not do. I think it can be very hard for someone to understand. Why say you did something that you didn’t do? Especially something like a brutal rape? And why confess and think that doing so means you’ll go home? As Quintero pointed out on Twitter, in this situation part of the reason those teens did so was because of the time and place.
Other things factor into false confessions — it’s complex. I think someone using this documentary should also provide more resources on false confessions, so that viewers don’t think it’s something that couldn’t happen now. (See Wikipedia for a list of other well known false confession cases; The Innocence Project, which explains that “In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.”; and a recent TIME article, Why Innocent Men Make False Confessions).
I watched The Central Park Five when it was shown on PBS, which means I could follow along with the discussion about it on Twitter (hashtag CP5). Many people, rightfully so, reacted to the ages of the teenagers: 14, 15, 16. The 16 year old was sent to Rikers Island. It is only right to react with anger to that. But — and I think this is part of the overall discussion — when it comes to the juvenile justice system, can we just demand compassion in retrospect for the innocent? There are tragic stories in the papers — I won’t link to any one — that involve allegations of teens doing horrible things and people responding with cries that those teens should be tried as adults. Should they? Why or why not? It’s not a simple or easy question, but I wonder, if it’s wrong for that teen to have been sent to Rikers, isn’t it wrong for any minor?
Did you watch The Central Park Five? Do you have any ideas of how to use it, for programs and in the classroom?
Finally, because I’m about books, I wondered after viewing this how many books there are for teens about false confessions.
There is The Rag & Bone Shop by Robert Cormier: “Twelve-year old Jason is accused of the brutal murder of a young girl. Is he innocent or guilty? The shocked town calls on an interrogator with a stellar reputation: he always gets a confession. The confrontation between Jason and his interrogator forms the chilling climax of this terrifying look at what can happen when the pursuit of justice becomes a personal crusade for victory at any cost.”
When I mentioned this on Twitter and asked for other recommendations, a number of people mentioned Code Named Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Much as I love that book, no — it’s not the same dynamics at all. Unreliable narrator, or a main character trying to manipulate a situation and come out the winner – that’s not false confession. I don’t think Monster by Walter Dean Myers counts, either, because to me the heart of the book was the narrator coming to terms with their own actions and whether felony murder is murder.
Blythe Woolston and I discussed the problem briefly: part of the reason we don’t see more of such books is it makes the person it happens to a victim and in most cases, they end up in jail. Or, as Woolston phrased it, “very hard to write fiction with an abject MC stripped of agency.”
So, if you have some ideas, please share the book and author and a bit about how the false confession figures into the plot. For example, someone confessing to protect another (a parent or sibling), is not a “false confession” in this context.