Sarah Burns Offers Insight into Notorious Jogger Case in The Central Park Five

Seeking deeper truths, author Sarah Burns sheds new light on the racially charged Central Park jogger case.

By , Contributor

Tim Kang

If you should happen after dark
To find yourself in Central Park,
Ignore the paths that beckon you
And hurry, hurry to the zoo,
And creep into the tiger's lair.
Frankly, you'll be safer there

- Ogden Nash 1960

The lyrical nature of this poem belies the dark social climate that cloaked New York City on April 19th, 1989. Five young men of mixed minorities, joined a rag-tag band of delinquents and followers and entered Central Park. At the same time, a 28 year old, white, investment banker decided to take her nightly jog through the park. This confluence of events would become the infamous Central Park Jogger Case.

15jogger.190.jpgWhat occurred is the stuff of reams of newspaper articles and incendiary hyperbole. Trisha Meili was brutally assaulted; beaten, raped and left to die in a ravine. By the time her battered body was discovered by two construction workers, five teenagers were being detained at the Central Park Precinct. They were gathered by happenstance, not caught in any act after a night of reported assaults throughout the park.The teens had harassed and intimidated park visitors that night, though they were not in the vicinity of this vicious crime.

The boys were between the ages of 14 and 16 years old with no prior records.

As Trisha Meili desperately fought for her life, a flawed police investigation began. Evidence was collected, statements were taken from sleep-deprived, vulnerable and intimidated boys and confessions were eventually coerced.These were not crooked police performing a second rate job. They were playing bad cop/good cop, sure that they had found the perpetrators. The methods used to extract the (false) confessions were textbook...yelling, pitting one against the other, bargaining, lying and ultimately, hollow promises.

The cops crossed the legal line when the boys were individually told that they would be set free if the police secured confessions from each of them. Youth, fear and naivete trumped all logic and each boy spun a tale that had no relation to the others. Once the detectives and prosecutors secured videotaped confessions, they ceased to do their homework.

The police had their assailants. The term 'wilding' became a part of every journalist's vocabulary.

alg_joggers-court.jpgThe media frenzy that followed was one of epic proportion. The word 'alleged', commonplace in today's 'Law and Order' vernacular, rarely appeared in the newspapers. Provocative terms such as 'beasts,' 'savages' and 'wolf pack' set the tone for the headlines that whipped the city into a racially biased frenzy. Similar inflammatory language had been used to describe the Scottsboro Boys, nine, innocent black youths who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. But this was 1989 and we should have known better.

The city's social and physical infrastructure was crumbling and along with it, the underpinnings of the justice system.

DNA testing was considered new technology and not widely used. Forensic evidence collected at the crime scene could not be tied to any of the accused. The tidal wave of racist assumptions and public damnation that would eventually convict the five young men could not be stopped. If only one cop had made the connection to evidence in a similar attack, committed nearby just two days earlier, five more rapes and the murder of a pregnant woman might never have occurred. The killer however, continued his spree. Matias Reyes wasn't caught until four months later.

Five innocent teenage boys spent five to ten years of their life in jail

sojogger1207.jpgIn 2002, Reyes confessed to the assault on Trisha Meili saying that he acted alone. Proper police work and forensics were implemented this time and the Central Park Five were exonerated, their convictions vacated. In 2003, the five young men filed suit for wrongful conviction. Now, eight years later, the city of New York has yet to settle the multi-million dollar lawsuit that represents their detoured and shattered lives.

Sarah Burns was a Yale student working as a summer intern at Moore & Goodman, a small civil rights law firm in New York City when she was inspired to write this book; struck by the racialized media representations in this case, she recognized even broader issues...

How did five teenagers with no police records admit to a crime of this magnitude?

How does a miscarriage of justice like this happen?

What made the city so ripe for such a powerful reaction to this crime?

The reader is given an impartial and intelligent foundation in order to answer these questions. The book is insightful, impeccably researched and offers an expansive essay which chronicles a dark chapter in New York City's history.

Sarah Burns' powerful new book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, tells the story of the events, people and the social climate that created this maelstrom.  She is now working on a film about the case with her husband, David McMahon, and her father, documentarian Ken Burns.

She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Cynthia Carr Gardner is a free-lance stylist in New York, Los Angeles and Boston. She began her career at Glamour Magazine as a sportswear editor and arbiter of the famed 'Do's and Don'ts.' Her work spans 33 years incorporating feature films, commercials, and currently, personal stylist for ESPN Monday…

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