Equal Justice Film Festival Showcases "Central Park Five"

April 3, 2013 — “You guys just went through an experience that was my life,” Yusef Salaam told a group of law students after an April 1st screening of the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five.”

The film, by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, explores how in 1990 Salaam and four other young men of color were wrongfully convicted for the brutal attack on the woman then known as “The Central Park Jogger.”  

“Even in New York today, most people [don’t] know the convictions were vacated, or they heard something that it was on a technicality and not because there was proof of innocence,” said Sarah Burns, who joined Salaam, McMahon and Associate Law Librarian Kumar Jayasuriya for a post-film question-and-answer session. 

Burns said she made the film in part “to set the record straight.” 

The pressure on officials to bring a swift conviction in the case of the white female investment banker attacked while jogging through Central Park in 1989, media reports of the case, and the young men's ignorance of their rights all contributed to the wrongful convictions.

Under intense questioning that sometimes lasted for more than a day, the teens — 14-, 15- and 16-year-old boys — gave false confessions that were subsequently videotaped and used against them in court. 

Salaam, who served more than five years in jail, was exonerated in 2002, when a man named Matias Reyes, already imprisoned for violent crimes, admitted to the attack. Reyes’s DNA matched what was recovered from the scene. 

“There are so many people who still don’t know about the fact that we were innocent,” said Salaam. “They won’t talk about the case [as one] where the system dropped the ball.”

The event was part of the Law Center’s Equal Justice Film Festival, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright and the 125th anniversary of the Law Library. It was sponsored by the Friends of the Law Library, the National Equal Justice Library, the Georgetown Criminal Law Association, the Innocence Project, the National Lawyers Guild, Outlaw and a new organization, Law Docs, which is devoted to screening law-related documentaries on campus. 

For more information about the festival and the films in the series, click here.

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