Murray Polner Review of Sarah Burns, "The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding" (Knopf 2011)


New York City in the 1980s, the time period for Sarah Burns’ engrossing The Central Park Five,  was suffering from a level of poverty unseen in years, legions of men and women wandering the streets, a plague of drugs, prostitution, petty and major crimes, and deteriorating public venues, all of which added to the frustrations of its citizens and politicians. It all seemed to come to a head on April 20, 1989 when  a 28-year-old white women was found  alive but mauled and  raped in Central Park,  her skull shattered, most of her blood having poured out onto the ground..

The victim of this abhorrent and despicable crime was Patricia Ellen Meili, known to her friends and family as Trisha, a Yale business school graduate and employee at Salomon Brothers’ investment house.  The night before she had set out for a nightly run in the park, a thoughtless practice her concerned family had warned her against.   As Burns reports, her rape “was by no means an isolated one…Twenty eight other  first-degree rapes or attempted rapes were reported in NYC that same week,” most of the victims were black, Hispanic or Asian women, including a black woman raped and thrown off a roof by two young black men. Still, as Burns reminds us, none of the minority women received anywhere the attention as the Central Park attack because white-run media and its readers and viewers were drawn primarily to white victims. 

It all began the evening of the 20th of April  when a group of black and Hispanic  teenage boys  began gathering at one of the park’s entrances,  apparently intent on “wilding”-- jargon for going wild at others’ expense. One was 16, the youngest only 13. Once inside the park, that vast, much-cherished recreational area for all New Yorkers, they began attacking any runners and bikers they ran across. One white male jogger was beaten so badly that a cop who saw him after the attack said it was as if he had been “dunked in a bucket of blood.”  Ironically, not long after the rape an undercover detective spotted an 18 year old named Matias Reyes – not one of the marauding gang-- leaving the park.  He was known to the police since he worked in a neighboring bodega. The detective asked him if had seen anything suspicious, but he said he hadn’t and was allowed to leave the park.

Before too long  news of the Central Park assaults consumed the city, stimulated by shrieking Post and Daily News headlines and widespread fears of black criminals on the prowl, though one of the suspects was Hispanic. Sarah Burns (she and her father, the documentarian Ken Burns, are reportedly preparing a film about the case) balances her careful account of the rape and police investigative work by noting that many atrocious crimes in the eighties had also been inflicted by whites against blacks.  In 1982, for example, Willie Turk a New York City Transit Authority employee was beaten to death for daring to venture onto the turf of Italian-American teens.   It would happen again and again, as when Michael Griffith’s car broke down on Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens close by a white enclave called Broad Channel, and was chased by a white gang he tried to escape by crossing a parkway and was struck and killed by an auto. Four months after the park rape white teenagers shot and killed Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old black youth in the overwhelmingly white Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. There were other such crimes in the city and in nearby communities by blacks and Hispanics against whites and vice versa, plus minorities against minorities.

Photos reproduced in the book depict   a Daily News’s front page headline: “WOLF PACK’S PREY: Female jogger near death after a savage attack by roving gang” and  another, “Park marauders call it ‘WILDING’…and it’s street slang for going berserk.” Writes Burns: “the media only amplified the sense that the city’s most at-risk population was the source of all crime, that blacks and Latinos, especially male teenagers, were criminals—murderers, thieves, rapists, and arsonists.”  Popular sentiment, reflecting the frenzy of a feral media, overwhelmingly took their guilt for granted and were reluctant to believe Reyes, the bodega worker, even after he confessed,no blood was found on any of the Five when arrested, or any DNA evidence pointed to them.  With racial stereotyping commonplace, the five were essentially convicted before they were tried and jury verdicts rendered (there were two public trials).  They would serve 7-13 years in prison. After a judge finally vacated their sentences, Manhattan’s DA Robert Morgenthau publicly stated that the city had been wrong.

Many still doubt the innocence of the Five but Burns shares none of them, pointing to the lack of evidence produced at the trials and questioning by police without families present, (though she notes that police followed legal interrogation techniques). The Five confessed but later recanted. Concludes Burns: [They] felt prey to the intense psychological pressure exerted by experienced detectives who were already convinced of their guilt.” Eventually, Trish Meili, the victim, “recovered” and married. The five young men, “without bitterness or anger” are thanked in her acknowledgment for their cooperation in researching the book. (There is no indication that Trisha Meili was interviewed).  And the confessed rapist, Matias Reyes, is currently in state prison.

Even today, if it is difficult to persuade some New Yorkers of their innocence. The blame, suggests Burns, should be borne by the curse of race prejudice, which she says “made it easier for so many to believe that these five teenaged boys had committed the crime in the first place, and no-one was suggesting that they might, in fact, be innocent.”  But then there is always the perennial and haunting question beyond the issue of race: “How to prevent wrongful convictions?”

  Meanwhile, the case is still alive because of a continuing civil lawsuit brought by the five men against the city and some of its employees.

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