Ken Burns Defies NYC Subpoena for ‘Central Park Five’ Documentary Material

Ken Burns' film documents the false convictions of five men in 1989 rape case

Ken Burns is putting his foot down over New York City's subpoena for notes, outtakes and other material from his documentary "The Central Park Five."

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The lauded "Baseball" documentary maker, along with Sarah Burns and David McMahon, his partners at Florentine Films, have chosen not to honor the subpoena, which was issued last month.

"Central Park Five" chronicles a rape case in which five young men were wrongfully convicted in the assault on a Central Park jogger in 1989. According to the New York Times, the city is currently locked in a federal lawsuit over the convictions, in which the exonerated men are seeking $50 million each, and hope that outtakes and other material from the film will help their defense.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Burns and his partners accuse the city of trying to "delay and deny closure" in the case by requesting the materials.

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“For the last ten years the City has refused to settle the civil rights lawsuit brought by these young men," the statement reads. "This strikes us as just another effort to delay and deny closure and justice to these five men, each of whom was cleared of guilt even though they served out their full and unjustified terms.

"As you can imagine, we strongly believe in the media’s right to investigate and report on these and other issues and that this process, including the reporting notes and outtakes, come under the New York reporters’ shield law," the filmmakers added. "The government has an exacting burden before it can obtain these and other materials.”

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A letter from Florentine's attorney John Siegal to New York's Law Department called the subpoena request "overbroad," and said that the subpoena could have a chilling effect on free speech.

“The subpoena served by your office is neither appropriate nor enforceable under the governing law for subpoenas served on professional journalists exercising their right of independent free speech and comment on a matter of public importance,” Siegal wrote. "[D]ue to a deeply held belief that its future ability to make films about matters of public interest would be compromised by complying with the subpoena, Florentine Films respectfully intends to invoke its constitutional
and statutory rights and withhold the unpublished materials sought by your office.”

The 1989 rape, which brought the term "wilding" into the vernacular, sparked outrage and stoked racial tensions in New York City at the time. However, 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.

The victim, Trisha Meili, then an employee of the Wall Street investment bank Salomon Brothers, went on to write a book, "I Am the Central Park Jogger," detailing her experience.