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'Wrong place at the wrong time': Documentary explores wrongful conviction of Central Park Five

A new documentary airing on Prairie Public Television tells the untold story of five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City's Central Park.

"The Central Park Five" will air at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It was directed and produced by Ken Burns, his daughter, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon.

The film chronicles the Central Park jogger case in 1989, but from the perspective of five teenagers whose lives were upended by a miscarriage of justice, according to a press release.

Sarah Burns became familiar with the case while doing research for a lawyer on behalf of the Central Park Five.

"I became fascinated by the story -- I couldn't let it go," she said.

She compiled her information into a book, "The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes." The book was the catalyst for the film.

"The great thing about the film is it allows us to interview the five individuals as adults," said Burns, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "You learn who they are in a different way than you can in a book -- you see and hear in a visceral way in a film, more so than you can with a description in a book."

The documentary tells the story of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise who were arrested and confessed to the rape and beating after many hours of interrogation.

The police announced the men had been part of a gang of teenagers who were "wilding" -- assaulting joggers and bicyclists that evening. The ensuing media frenzy was met with a public outcry for justice. The men were tried as adults and convicted, despite lack of DNA evidence or eyewitness accounts, according to a press release.

The five served complete sentences, between 6 and 13 years, before another man, serial rapist Matias Reyes admitted to the crime and DNA testing supported this confession.

Burns spoke with the young men numerous times while writing the book.

"They wanted their stories told," she said. "I think this story is important to set the record straight. A lot of people remember the terrible crime, but maybe that's all they know -- let's clear up what really happened."

She said the film illustrates how law enforcement, social institutions and media undermined the rights of the individuals they were designed to protect.

"These kids were caught up at the wrong place and the wrong time," Burns said.

"Ultimately, 'The Central Park Five' is about human dignity," McMahon said in a press release. "It is about five young men who lose their youth, but maintain their dignity in the face of an horrific and unimaginable situation."

In 2003, the men filed civil lawsuits against the city of New York and the police officers and prosecutors. The lawsuit remains unresolved.

"This case is a lens through which we can understand the ongoing fault line of race in America," Burns said. "They were convicted because it was all too easy for people to see them as violent criminals simply because of the color of their skin. Hopefully, we can start a conversation to prevent this from happening again."

Prairie Public may be seen on KDSE-DT9-Dickinson.