Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (BOOK REVIEW)

by Sarah Burns
Hardcover, $25.95
264 pages, Illustrated
ISBN: 978-0-307-26614-9

Book Review by Kam Williams

“In 1990, Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, Jr. [were] convicted and sent to prison for a combination of rape, sexual assault and attempted murder of a female jogger named Trisha Meili in Central Park... That the victim had been a 28 year-old, successful, white investment banker and that the [accused] were black and Latino teenagers from Harlem was not lost on the public...
The media coverage of the crime exposed a racism rife in American society, and the language used to describe the supposed perpetrators was filled with imagery of savage wild animals, the same racist imagery that had been used to justify lynchings earlier in the century…
The false narrative disseminated by the police and the media was swallowed whole by the public… Even though some like to say we live in a ‘postracial’ society, the racism that fueled the rush to judgment persists, and… we have not evolved enough from the days when even the suggestion that a black man had raped a white woman could lead to a lynching.”

-- Excerpted from the Preface (pgs. ix-xi)

On April 19, 1989, Patricia Ellen Meili entered Central Park around 9 PM, a regular running time for her due to the long hours she worked on Wall Street. Unfortunately, on this occasion, she would be sadistically beaten, brutally raped and left for dead, with 80% of the blood draining from her body by the time she was rushed to the hospital by ambulance after the police were alerted by a couple of passersby.
Because Trisha came from a privileged background marked by ballet and horseback riding topped off by an Ivy League pedigree, the NYPD was under considerable pressure to apprehend the perpetrators of the heinous crime. And it was not long before they had somehow extracted confessions from five teenagers from Harlem, none of whom had ever been arrested or even in serious trouble before.
Contrary to state law, the names of the juveniles were released to the press prior to their being indicted or arraigned. Furthermore, the police leaked incriminating admissions supposedly made by the accused of their own free will about having stabbed and ejaculated on the victim.
The tabloid press, ever inclined to exploit the hot button issues of color and class, soon began sensationalizing the case’s lurid details, dubbing the white victim “The Central Park Jogger” while coining the term “Wilding” to describe the alleged behavior of her African-American and Latino attackers. Ordinarily apolitical icons also got into the act, like Donald Trump who took out full-page ads in every New York City daily newspaper calling for the death penalty, saying that the perpetrators “should be forced to suffer” and “should be executed for their crimes.”
It was no surprise, then, that in the face of the vigilante-like demand for vengeance, all five kids were convicted despite the fact that none of their DNA was found on Trisha and she didn’t have any knife wounds. They were only exonerated after having completely served sentences ranging from 6 to 13 years when a serial rapist named Matias Reyes, a DNA match to Exhibit A, confessed to the crime in 2002.
Written by Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five revisits the controversial case to determine just how a combination of a media circus, a flawed legal system and a racist society inclined to see black adolescents as animals had enabled such a gross miscarriage of justice to transpire. The author, who also disputes the popular notion that this country is now post-racial because of the election of President Barack Obama, is already collaborating with her father, award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, on a documentary based on this eye-opening opus which belatedly sets the record straight.
A riveting retrospective on a tragic rush to judgment which ruined five, innocent young lives.

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