When Mass Hysteria Convicted 5 Teenagers
Oct. 27, 2012
Mass hysteria always makes perfect sense when we are trapped in it. It can take decades — or even longer — before the crazed irrationality of a particular episode shows itself for what it was. That realization comes through with considerable force in a new documentary about the case of the five black and Hispanic teenagers who were wrongly convicted in the beating and rape of a young, white jogger in Central Park in the spring of 1989.
The film, written and produced by the documentarian Ken Burns, with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, offers a matter-of-fact but profoundly disturbing depiction of the forces that led citizens, politicians, the media and the criminal justice system to brush past yawning gaps in the evidence in the case. The five teenagers, aged 14 to 16, were convicted — based on confessions they say were coerced — in what former Mayor Ed Koch describes in the film as “the crime of the century.”
The convictions were overturned in 2002, after a serial rapist and murderer, who had staged a similar attack in the park just 48 hours before the one on the jogger, stepped forward to admit his crime, saying that he had acted alone….
Looking back at their younger selves, the men speak of loss and of standing at a kind of remove from the lives they are trying to live. As Mr. Wise, who served 13 years, puts it: “You can forgive but you won’t forget. You won’t forget what you done lost. No money could bring that time back. No money could bring the life that was missing or the time that was taken away.”