The story of the woman who was brutally raped on April 19, 1989, and who would come to be known as the Central Park jogger, is a horrifying one. But Sarah Burns' The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding is not about the heartbreaking assault and subsequent heroic recovery of Patricia Meili, the white, 28-year-old victim of the notorious crime. It is the story of the five African-American teens who were convicted of her rape, sentenced and imprisoned, only to have those convictions vacated 13 years later.
Burns describes New York on the cusp of the 1990s as a violent and dangerous place, where, "on average, 36 people were murdered every week." She sets the scene of a city in despair. In Harlem, the home neighborhood of the Central Park five, "men were less likely to reach the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh," according to a study Burns quotes. And Central Park itself had been a breeding ground for crime for more than a decade: In one of his Tonight Show monologues from 1972, Johnny Carson quipped, "Some Martians landed in Central Park today ... and were mugged."
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr. — all between the ages of 14 and 16 — were hardly innocents. The night of Meili's rape, they prowled Central Park and perpetrated random crimes, terrorizing two cyclists and two joggers, beating one severely enough to hospitalize him. After the cyclists reported this scattering of assaults to a nearby police precinct, the teenagers were brought in and held until the arrival of their guardians. Meili's lifeless and savagely beaten body had yet to be discovered. But when a patrolman found her in the muddy puddle where she'd been left, the young men became immediate suspects. Over the next many hours and into the morning, the police coerced confessions from the group. The fact that none of these confessions accurately reflected the evidence at hand or even the timing of the Meili attack was inconsequential. Once they'd confessed, the teens were irreversibly perceived as guilty.
The Central Park Five reads like any great true-crime book, even if, from the start, we know these teenagers are innocent. Burns is quite obviously passionate about civil rights, and she attributes the conviction of the Central Park five and the hysteria surrounding the crime to systematic and rampant societal racism. In the pages that follow her account of the confessions, she provides an overview of racial violence in America, focusing with particular outrage on the atrocities of the Jim Crow era. In grim detail, she describes the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose, a laborer accused of killing his white employer and raping his wife. From there, Burns dissects the rhetoric used by the New York media to describe the Central Park five. They were feral animals, "a wolfpack," "wild criminals." Their alleged marauding was ominously labeled "a wilding" — according to the Daily News, "street slang for going berserk." Burns makes connections to similar language used against blacks during Jim Crow.
It's now clear that racism played a role in the coerced confessions and reflex assumption of guilt, but Burns — whose reporting is penetrating and storytelling crisp — does her argument a disservice by framing the events in such one-sided terms. Were the police and the general public really so wrong to have pointed a finger at the Central Park five, given the other assaults they'd unleashed that horrible spring night?
Disturbingly, as the trial of the Central Park five got under way in October 1989, Matias Reyes, the man who had actually committed the assault on Meili, was rampaging in New York, stabbing each of his subsequent and multiple rape victims in the eyes in order to prevent them from identifying him. Reyes would eventually be brought to justice, but not for the assailing of Meili. Only after a jailhouse encounter with one of the Central Park five would he own up to the crime. In 2001, his DNA was tested against a semen sample from Meili's sock, and it was a match.
A subject as incendiary and complex as racism calls for clarity, and Burns is a calm, lucid and concise writer. The daughter of filmmaker Ken Burns, she plans to follow up her book with a documentary about the Central Park five. Even a decade after the assault, the bias and hate rhetoric so ubiquitous and destructive in 1989 had yet to abate, as is suggested in the way pundit Ann Coulter described the crime in The New York Times in 2002: "A mob of feral beasts," she wrote, "descended on Central Park [and] brutalized a female jogger while incomprehensibly chanting 'Wild Thing' in their ghetto patois."
Sadly, in the vast metaphoric and communal beauty of Central Park, some darkness still lurks.