Ken Burns has one word about the $40 million settlement that New York City has agreed to pay five men who were wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989.
Well, actually, he has a lot of words about the settlement. But one word pretty much sums it up: He’s “thrilled.”
“We’re thrilled. It’s really a period at the end of a long, run-on sentence of injustice,” Burns, whose 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five” chronicled the case, said of the settlement, which was reached at the end of June. “We’re sorry that it took several administrations to do this, but [New York mayor Bill] de Blasio had campaigned on this. As mayor elect, he doubled down on it.”
Burns admitted at the Television Critics Association press tour Tuesday that he was worried earlier in the year when the settlement hadn’t been reached yet, but blamed it on foot-dragging on the part of police and prosecutors involved in the case.
“We were a little bit anxious all during the spring when it hadn’t happened. But I think it was mainly fighting the rear-guard actions of a recalcitrant bureaucracy of cops, ex-cops and prosecutors who made it hard for the new team to come in.”
Burns called the settlement “adequate,” as much as it could be.
“What’s adequate, if you’ve lost your entire childhood to something you haven’t done, and experienced the kind of experiences that those five had in jail?” Burns asked. “Particularly Corey Wise, tried as an adult with the mental age of a 12-year-old spending 13 years in the worst conditions, and whatever fears you have about prison happened. I don’t know what you could do to compensate that, but it finally represents a real important moment for them going forward. A vindication in the best possible way, even though the prosecutors still maintain that they did nothing wrong that day. Except put the wrong people in jail and let the real guy continue to rape and murder.”
Burns praised the fact that the wrongfully accused men, who after more than a decade were cleared by DNA evidence, eschewed bitterness despite their experience.
“To see these five men now in their late 30s and early 40s with so little anger and bitterness is just a testament to the human spirit,” the filmmaker said.
He also praised his daughter Sarah, whose research and writing inspired the documentary, for playing a part in the eventual settlement.
“I might say that this wouldn’t have happened without my daughter Sarah’s work. She wrote the paper, earned the trust of them. She wrote the book, continued to earn the trust of them. And we were so impressed with what she was writing that we wanted to make a film and, in large ways, the film played — I’m very happy to say — a big role in keeping this front and center and the pressure on,” Burns said. “So my daughter Sarah deserves a lot of credit for that successful conclusion. We are overjoyed.”
The Central Park Five case, which led to the phrase “wilding,” sparked outrage and stoked racial tensions in New York City at the time. It was later determined that false confessions had been obtained. When the actual rapist came forward, district attorney Robert Morgenthau directed a re-investigation and successfully sought for the convictions to be vacated.