ASPEN - The rape and assault of a 28-year-old female jogger in Central Park on April 19, 1989, was not one single incident. As media, police and government officials assured those who lived in the vicinity of New York City, this attack represented a sea change.
Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York state at the time, was quoted as saying, "This is the ultimate shriek of alarm." A new term was even coined for these types of incidents, where gangs of young men intent on mindless mayhem roamed the streets: wilding.
The attack in Central Park came a few years after two other disturbingly violent episodes in New York City: Bernhard Goetz shooting four muggers on a subway and a racially fueled brawl in the Howard Beach neighborhood that ended with one young man dead and another badly beaten.
"When we talk to people about the case, people remember this as a series of incidents," Sarah Burns, a writer and documentary filmmaker, said of the Central Park attack. "People would bring up Bernie Goetz, Howard Beach and call these racial incidents that were parts of a puzzle, not isolated."
Little wonder, then, that New York City police, prosecutors and elected officials were eager to demonstrate that, despite the horrifying violence in Central Park, the city had not descended into lawlessness. When police spotted a handful of teenage boys - four black and one Latino; the oldest just 16 - in the vicinity of the attack, they moved swiftly. The boys were taken into custody, isolated from one another and interrogated for hours until they confessed. Eventually all five were convicted despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to the crime, despite sharp contradictions between their separate accounts and despite all of them recanting their confessions. They spent between six and 13 years in prison.
In 2001, Matias Reyes, an imprisoned serial rapist and murderer, came forward with a confession of his own. He had raped the woman in Central Park by himself. Reyes' DNA and the information he provided confirmed that he was the attacker. The five who had been convicted - Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise - were exonerated, a story that received nothing like the sensational headlines of 12 years earlier.
The five now get what might be their best bit of justice. "The Central Park Five," a documentary Burns made with her father, the noted documentarian Ken Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, has been showing up on lists of the best films of 2012. The film shows Monday night in the Wheeler Opera House's "Monday Docs" series.
In his documentaries on jazz, baseball, the Civil War and even America's National Parks, Ken Burns has found racial themes to explore, and a search for social justice seems part of the family's genetic material.
"I think my dad would say I always had a keen sense of justice and fairness, since I was a kid," Sarah Burns, 29, said. "I'd say I got it from him, his sense of race in this country."
At Yale, Burns moved from film studies to American studies, "without noticing the irony that I had switched from the medium of my father's films to the content of his films." While at college, Burns worked for a civil-rights lawyer who was preparing a lawsuit on behalf of the Central Park Five against the city of New York and individual police officers and assistant district attorneys. (The suit has yet to be resolved.) Burns went on to write her senior thesis on racism and media coverage and wrote the 2011 book "The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding," for which she did extensive interviews with the five men who had been wrongly imprisoned.
While working on the book, Burns envisioned a film as well.
"We saw how revealing a story it was - not just what happened to these five guys but the bigger story of coerced confessions, the underlying racism that made it easy for people to believe they did it," she said.
The film benefits from Burns' familiarity with her subjects. The documentary is on one hand an infuriating critique of the criminal justice system; the video of the original confessions by boys who were simply overwhelmed by the police is stomach-churning.
But "The Central Park Five" also is surprisingly inspiring. The four men who appear on screen (one, Antron McCray, is only heard, not seen, for privacy reasons) are uniformly philosophical about their experience. They are sympathetic characters not only because of their history but also because of who they have become.
"None of them were as I had expected. I had a cliched notion that they were hardened by the experience, embittered. Instead there's this grace," Burns said. "I saw they were really smart about what happened to them and came to understand it in such an interesting way. The common question is: How do you deal with the anger you feel? But they all manage to have some kind of distance from it. I don't know if it's forgiveness but generosity in handling this. They each made this decision not to let it eat them alive."
Burns said the climate of New York in 1989 was a factor in the five teenagers being swept into prison.
"It somehow made sense to people," she said. "It fit with their fear. The victim was an emblem of the upwardly mobile white class. And the media were able to make these kids look like animals. There was an us-versus-them thing happening: 'Is this the end of New York City? Is this the final decline?'"
But she adds that such incidents are still possible. She points to the case of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old who was shot and killed while staying in a gated community in Florida. The shooting, by a neighborhood watchman, spurred charges of racism, both in the killing and in the handling of the case.
"People talk about being post-racial, which is ridiculous," Burns said. "Some things have changed. New York City is a different place. But the underlying problems haven't changed. The stop-and-frisk law in New York that disproportionately targets minorities - there are a million examples. The fact that it was so easy for people to believe these kids committed this crime in 1989 - that could just as easily happen now."
Last fall, the New York Police Department announced that it was changing the way youths would be interrogated. Burns sees it as a small step with many more to follow, she hopes.
"I hope what can come out of this film is more conversation. How does this happen, and why does it happen? Understanding that it happened is the first step," she said. "And we can set the record straight on this story: These kids didn't do it."