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‘Central Park Five’ screening spurs talk about rights

Yusef Salaam (second from l.) is escorted by police. Salaam was convicted of rape in the Central Park jogger case but later exonerated. Photo courtesy IFC Films
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A screening of the documentary “Central Park Five,” which recounts the case of five teenagers who were falsely convicted of the brutal rape of a woman jogger in Central Park in 1989, turned into a teachable moment for many at the Robert Ross Johnson Family Life Center last Thursday.

City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) attended a panel held after the screening at the center, at 172-17 Linden Blvd. He said the case, in which the teens confessed to the crime after spending hours being interrogated by police without attorneys present, demonstrates the need for people to know their rights.

“We have to let our entire community know that if something happens, you have to put your faith in God first,” he said. “Call somebody, but don’t just believe what the police are telling you.”

Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam, two of the Central Park Five, attended the panel discussion. They said it was important for youths to listen to their parents and to receive a good education.

“When people don’t get educated, they don’t realize they have more options than one,” Salaam said, saying some disadvantaged teens see a life of drug dealing as the only option for them, not realizing they have the skills to become something more.

“Central Park Five” details the racially charged 1989 case in which the five teens, four of them black and one of them Hispanic, were convicted of the rape of a white jogger despite a lack of DNA evidence tying them to the crime.

The five teenagers said police told them during the lengthy interrogations that they would be allowed to go home if they confessed, and those confessions were later used to secure convictions against them.

During the screening, the audience, the majority of whom were black, appeared to identify with several parts of the film. Many clapped or murmured in agreement when the film made the argument that the media would not have been at such a fever pitch over the case if the victim had been black.

The five were exonerated in 2002 when Matias Reyes, who was doing prison time for murder and rape convictions, came forward and confessed and his DNA linked him to the crime. The five were released and since have launched a $250 million lawsuit against the city for their wrongful convictions. The city has so far refused to settle.

Comrie said the city should give the men their fair due.

“Let’s [make] no mistake about what happened here, the system broke down and the system did these young men and their parents an injustice,” he said.

“Central Park Five” was directed and produced by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns.

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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