By Marc Glassman
Zoomers will remember two criminal cases that defined the early ‘90s, the rape of the Central Park Jogger in New York City and the murders of three eight-year-olds in West Memphis, Arkansas. Both were terrifying crimes—one, a vicious rape and near murder of an attractive, white, twenty-something investment banker jogging in Central Park; the other, the murder and possible sexual abuse of three young boys in small town, Arkansas. Even worse, the accused perpetrators were nightmarish figures: in the Central Park case, a group of young African-American Harlem teenagers and in West Memphis, three “gothic” teen-aged boys, who were apparently into heavy metal music and devil worship.
A quarter of a century later, two incisive docs, premiering at TIFF, reveal that miscarriages of justice took place in both cases. In West of Memphis, a film directed by Amy Berg and co-produced by the powerful New Zealand filmmaking couple Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, it’s shown that evidence never truly supported the incarceration of the West Memphis Three. Police were able to develop a case after the least intelligent of the trio was manipulated into making a false confession.
Much the same happened in New York after the jogger’s body was discovered, almost dead, in a ditch in Central Park. Police held three black teens already in custody in a station near Harlem and picked up a couple of other youngsters the next day. Working round the clock, veteran detectives were able to sweat confessions out of five young men, all 16 or younger. Even though DNA samples showed that none of the Harlem quintet had left any evidence at the scene of the crime, all five were found guilty. ]
The doc on The Central Park Five, like West of Memphis, benefits from the professional and financial backing of a top name in film and TV—in this case, Ken Burns. Bringing his expertise in documentary production to this film, Burns was able to realize a project originated by his daughter Sarah and her partner, David McMahon. Thanks to interviews conducted by a sympathetic Sarah Burns, the five (now all in their late thirties) come across as having been naïve youngsters, ill equipped to deal with the angry racism that erupted once the situation became public. Endless shots of cigarette butts burning out in ashtrays and clocks inexorably recording the passage of time permeate the Burns’ doc.
The passion that fueled these two documentaries was a desire to see justice done. In the case of the West Memphis Three, their release only came after they had to confess that they were indeed guilty of the charged crimes—even though Berg’s doc makes it clear who actually killed the three innocent children. Despite the release of the Three, justice may still prevail in the court of public opinion fueled by the support of celebrities like filmmaker Jackson, actor Johnny Depp and musician Eddie Vedder—and the response of audiences who see West of Memphis.
Thanks to a confession by the real criminal, the Central Park Five have been declared innocent. But a law suit against New York City and its police force is still being opposed in court.
Both of these well-made docs show that fears against rebellious youths combined with classism and racism created the conditions that brought about these miscarriages of justice. West of Memphis and The Central Park Five are important docs, well worth seeing at TIFF.