The Central Park Five

Christopher Owens reviews a 2012 book about a US miscarriage of justice. 

Miscarriages of justice don't shock us anymore, but what does shock us is the machinations that take place to ensure that such things occur.

We know the obvious cases (Birmingham Six, Tottenham Three, Stefan Kiszko), but what about the smaller stories like Chris Jeffries? The media openly condemning him as guilty without a trial. And all because he seemed "a bit weird."

Very dangerous, and genuinely scary.

It's a simple formula: take a police force under severe pressure to solve a case, a media where more and more journalists struggle with the concept of "contempt of court" and an apathetic public.

And it was this combination that led to The Central Park Five being jailed for the brutal attack and rape of Trisha Meili, a young investment banker.

It is these sections where the book excels, depicting New York City as a decaying metropolis by the end of the 80's where crimes against blacks and Latinos were commonplace, but given nowhere near the consideration as the rape of the white lady. With the cases of Tawana Brawley, Michael Griffith and the Subway Vigilante in the background, the city had an unpleasant recent history with racial violence and this case was one in a depressingly long list. Throw in a city on the verge of collapse due to racial tensions, crime and unemployment and you've got a tinderbox, ready to go at any second.

Although Burns does a good job of presenting the story in a linear fashion, keeping the prose dry enough for it to be read as a legal thriller while allowing moments of outrage to permeate the paragraph, the end result is something of a dry read. It has neither the righteous indignation of David Rose's A Climate of Fear, nor the bare minimalism of David James Smith's The Sleep of Reason.

Interestingly, she pays little attention to the advert taken out by business tycoon (now El Presidente) Donald Trump at the height of the search for the culprit. Lawyers for the five have made the claim that Trump's advert, combined with a heated interview where he said "...maybe hate is what we need if we're gonna get something done", fanned the flames of public opinion against the accused.

To be fair to Burns, the book was published in 2012, so it probably seemed more of an oddity from that period as opposed to a starting point for the sort of rhetoric we now see coming from Trump's Twitter account. Even then, the idea that one of New York's "elite" producing such an advert with such conservative rhetoric deserves closer attention.

As well as this, Burns indulges in a little disingenuity.

It's widely acknowledged that the accused were in Central Park causing mayhem, around the same time as the rape of Meili. Such mayhem consisted of attacking homeless people and badly beating a cyclist. Although Burns does discuss these incidents, the narrative around them is inconclusive, almost as if she didn't want to focus on them too much in case the reader loses sympathy.

Maybe this is down to a lack of confidence on the part of the writer, but including these as part of the overall narrative would have shown the complexity of the case and, inadvertently, criticised the police for focusing on one specific crime instead of several.

While such tricks would normally lead me to be suspicious of the author, and what else they may have glossed over, the end tale is potent enough that the reader allows the author such transgressions.

Overall, a decent enough read. But don't expect to be fired up with righteous fury. 

Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes 2012 Anchor Books ISBN-13: 978-0307387981

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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