The Central Park Five

December 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The great tv documentarian, Ken Burns (“The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “Baseball,” “Prohibition,” etc.), has turned his eyes to the failures of the criminal justice system with this powerful documentary.  In 1989, a young white woman jogging in Central Park was brutally raped.  A precinct full of cops with a reputation of success to protect and a young prosecutor with career advancement plans (aided by a DA, a mayor, and a host of others) doggedly pursued the case with a blindness bordering on malpractice.  The end result was that five African American boys (ages 14 to 16) were convicted and spent between 6 and 12 1/2 years in prison.  Oh, in case you hadn’t guessed, they did not commit the crime.  This story is hardly new (in fact, this very case is a famous one) and we have heard its like before.  Think, The West Memphis 3.  Think, Leonard Peltier.  Think “Hurricane” Carter.  In the past 40 years, more than 140 people in the United States have been exonerated of capital convictions alone.  In this case, the boys were questioned for hours and hours without sleep or their parents present; they were lied to and told that the others were all writing statements naming them; they were told if they gave a statement they could go home and then they were spoonfed exactly what to say.  Their “confessions” were then used against them in court.  Even though their statements contradicted each other, even though witnesses placed them in another part of the park while the rape was occurring, and even though DNA evidence suggested a different perpetrator, those confessions were all that counted.  The newspapers had labelled them “The Wolf Pack” in a clear example of race baiting not unlike when Arkansas prosecutors called the West Memphis 3 satanists, playing off of fears in that rural community about gothic teens.  While the West Memphis teens were white, what they shared with these boys was that they were poor and under-educated and, thus, perfect patsies for a lazy criminal justice system.  But, then, the criminal justice system isn’t really about protection, nor is it even really about punishment; it is a pay-to-play system that is about social control.  Those who can only get public defenders spend years in prison for the same crimes that the wealthy walk free on.  Those who are middle class and can afford your average attorney, pay a middling price for their defense and get a middling “punishment” for the same crime.  But that’s okay, because the goal of the system is to manage social unrest.  “How do we restore order?”  “How do we send a message?” etc.  And it does that very well.

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