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Attention Must be Paid When Injustice Rules

Our Opinionated Judge on the 'Central Park Five'

Darleen Ortega | 6/6/2013, 9:29 a.m.
Movie strikes a chord on the wrongfully convicted
In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted of attacking and raping a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. The story of injustice is told in the Ken Burns documentary ‘The Central Park Five.’ in the photo on right, Antron McCraya, one of the defendants and his mother walk to the courthouse. The Daily News/Courtesy IFC Films

Some of the reviews I've read complain that the filmmakers did not push harder to find out if any of the men were among the kids who committed other crimes that night, something they all deny. To me, given the lack of evidence that the five men committed the crimes for which they served time and the extent of the evidence that someone else did, that complaint indicates a very persistent desire of the dominant culture to find some reason to excuse injustice by continuing to dig for more evidence that its victims somehow brought it on themselves.

The filmmakers' choice, instead, to focus on the point of view of the accused men seemed to me an appropriate and rarely seen counterbalance to the enormous energy devoted to prosecuting them and pillorying them in the press. It allows a flavor of the fear, naivete, and utter disenfranchisement that contributed to five children confessing to such heinous crimes.

What comes across is how social inequalities functioned in this case. These boys and their families were expendable. They did not have a sense of their rights, or a sense that they even had rights. I can't think of a film that has done a comparable job of reflecting on the real implications of such disenfranchisement.

All the while that these young men sat accused and then convicted, law enforcement had the DNA of a serial rapist who was the real perpetrator, and whose DNA was found at the scene. They did not bother to investigate any other theories, though, after obtaining four confessions that jibed neither with each other nor with the evidence at the scene.

The truth would never had come out had not the actual perpetrator confessed. Even then, forces quickly united to protect the police from any criticism. The lawsuit the men filed against the city remains pending after 10 years. Far from making right even some small bit of what was wrongly taken from these men, the city and the police force remains defiant.

The film does a heroic job of marshalling and making what sense is possible of these ultimately inscrutable details. It should be required viewing, especially for anyone involved in the criminal justice system, not least because it provides an occasion for deep reflection on our collective blindness to institutional oppression.

As expressed on camera by historian Craig Steven Wilder, "Rather than tying up [the case] in a bow and thinking that there was something we can take away from it, and that we'll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is that we're NOT very good people."

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in the Portland Observer. You can find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.