The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns

4.5/5 stars

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, I have really no memories of the era in which New York City wasn’t seen as a desirable place to be. My parents often told me that ‘going into the city’ was not a common weekend activity when they were young, not in the era of blackouts and graffiti and Times Square peep shows rather than chain restaurants.

The most famous crime from that era was the Central Park Jogger case, in which a young woman in running gear was found near-death, assaulted and mutilated while she was out for a run in the park that had once been the crown jewel of the city, and by 1989 had been reduced to dirt patches and was a shell of its former self. Five teenagers, all Black or Latinx from the Harlem neighbourhood, were arrested and charged after dubious confessions had been made.

Sarah Burns, daughter of documentary maker Ken, is as attentive to detail as her father as she documents the crime, the case, and the aftermath the five suffered. What results is a thoughtful and important work on the justice system in America, and how it fails people of colour every day. Based on painstaking research and interviews with the five themselves, along with their families, Burns captures a portrait of a city in crisis and young lives in turmoil.

Unlike the Netflix series When They See Us (which was fantastic and everyone should watch it ASAP), this book spends more time with the victim and the real culprit, looking especially at the similar rapes he had committed before and after the Central Park Jogger incident that police either failed to notice a pattern in, or chose to ignore. I think this added a lot of depth to the work and helped to better establish the failures at every level that led to the wrongful convictions.

Burns, however, does get bogged down in the legal jargon–which isn’t shocking as she was first introduced to this case as a summer clerk–and the descriptions of the trial can drag a bit. I wish she had spent less time explaining basic things like Miranda rights and instead expanded the larger context surrounding the case, such as the Goetz shootings and the class divides between Harlem and the Upper West Side neighbourhoods that came into play in the investigation. The book has been edited since it was released in 2011, but could probably use a more thorough going-over now that some of the most central figures in the case have much more influence in politics and media nowadays (Please don’t make me talk about him). But if you are looking for a good companion to the Netflix series, I think this is a perfect fit.


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