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Most Americans forty or older will recall the 1989 case of the young woman brutalized by a rampaging mob of teenagers while jogging in Central Park. Coming amid soaring crime rates, the attack spawned a scary neologism, “wilding,” and mass public revulsion that took on a racial tinge when five black and Hispanic teenagers quickly confessed. I recall the news images of teenaged males being hustled out of police stations, heads down; like nearly everyone else, I shook my head at how depraved they were, and how guilty.

Except that they were not.

A joint effort of famed documentarian Ken Burns and his daughter, Sarah, The Central Park Five shows how five young American males of color were railroaded into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. In extensive interviews all five, now in their thirties (one declines to appear on camera but provides off-screen commentary), recount being held overnight without food or sleep, alternately badgered and reassured by detectives who promised that if they implicated other members of the group in the crime, they could “go home.” Eventually all five caved in. It was a textbook case of faulty interrogation techniques. “The goal is to break the suspect down to helplessness and despair,” comments a psychologist expert in coerced confessions. “Once the confession is taken, it...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.