The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes by Sarah Burns

IMG_5205This book falls perfectly in my wheel house, a book about true crime, a book about racial politics in the United States, and a book about the wrongfully convicted. I already knew a lot about this story, and the facts of this case before reading the book, in fact I had already seen the PBS Documentary.  That being said, if you’re not familiar with this story, here is some context.

On April 20th, 1989, two passersby discovered the body of the “Central Park jogger” crumpled in a ravine. She’d been raped and severely beaten. Within days five black and Latino teenagers were apprehended, all five confessing to the crime. The staggering torrent of media coverage that ensued, coupled with fierce public outcry, exposed the deep-seated race and class divisions in New York City at the time. The minors were tried and convicted as adults despite no evidence linking them to the victim. Over a decade later, when DNA tests connected serial rapist Matias Reyes to the crime, the government, law enforcement, social institutions and media of New York were exposed as having undermined the individuals they were designed to protect. Here, Sarah Burns recounts this historic case for the first time since the young men’s convictions were overturned, telling, at last, the full story of one of New York’s most legendary crimes.

As I mentioned I was already keyed into this story. I had seen the documentary years ago and was really moved by it. This book, is written by the same woman, Sarah Burns, who was a co-creator on the film (her father, legendary documentarian Ken Burns, is also a co-creator). Both the book and film share from one another, and I can only imagine how ground shaking this book would be if you were relatively unfamiliar with this story.

Burns does a fantastic job of detailing not only the events of 1989 and 1990, but also recreating the environment and cultural current of the time. She walks us through how something like this could happen; the media frenzy, the racist attitudes, and so much more. Her writing is straightforward, though also a little biased (and I think rightfully so). This is not a “we need to hear both sides of this story” kind of book. In all fairness, the “other side”, the side of the city of New York, has been driving the narrative on the Central Park Five for the last 20+ years. She is righting a wrong. She is setting a record straight.

You can sense Burn’s frustration with the system through out the book. The Central Park Five is a searing indictment of the way that the NYPD and District Attorney’s office handled this case. Burns does lean in a little deeper and remind us that this case could happen to anyone, as the practices used to convict these young men are still very much alive and well in today’s judicial system.

The only thing that this book lacks for me is a deeper connection to the boys who were dubbed The Central Park Five. I wish Burns dove deeper into repercussions these events had on the five teenagers. At the center of this story is not only wrongdoings by the city of New York, but also the story of those who were wronged. This book is more styled to be a piece of journalism chronicling the events, and less and expose on the lives that were altered. I would have loved for it to have done both things.

If you’re not familiar with this story, or the revelations that have come up in the last 15 years, I highly recommend this book, and the documentary. It is also worth noting that Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) has signed on for a five-episode Netflix series about The Central Park Five set to film this summer. I’m obviously looking forward to this as well.

If you’re familiar with this story or have read the book or seen the documentary I would love to hear from you. Leave your comments below.

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books (May 9, 2012)
  • 2/5 stars
  • Buy The Central Park Five on Amazon

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