Hard Choices

Ken Burns on Fighting a New York City Subpoena


Ken Burns on Fighting a New York City Subpoena

Illustration by Gluekit

In April 1989, five boys were arrested for the brutal rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park. The boys—who’d been among a larger group of boys in the park that night—became known as the Central Park Five. My film is about what happened between that night in April and the vacation of the boys’ convictions in 2002.

After the sensational trial in 1990, the boys spent upwards of 13 years in prison. All were out of jail except one—who was doing time for a subsequent drug offense—when the real rapist came forward and his DNA matched. The district attorney reinvestigated the crime and found that the cops and prosecutors had missed an incredible number of signs that pointed to the boys’ innocence. In December 2002, they had their convictions vacated. They then launched a civil suit against the City of New York, which is still pending after almost a decade.

When we were working on the film, we contacted police, the prosecution, and city for interviews. Our calls were either never returned or we were told that people weren’t available. We were stunned at the stonewalling.

Then this month we received a subpoena from the court at the request of the counsel that’s representing all the defendants in the civil suit: namely, the police and prosecutors who screwed up. They asked us to turn over all of our materials and outtakes from our footage.

I can’t attribute motives, but I think that in order to bolster their case they were looking for discrepancies between what the young men said to them and what they said to us. After 10 years, the Central Park Five need justice. This is just another delaying tactic, and I find it such a cynical gesture. We disagree with the subpoena and won’t honor it.

I’m also outraged by this horrible intrusion into the journalistic process. It’s an issue of the First Amendment. And New York has shield laws that go beyond that. The government should not have the ability to subpoena notes and outtakes when they don’t like the way things are going.

There are fault lines and tensions within every democracy. It’s at those fault lines and tensions that we not only grow as a country but, if we’re not careful, we also retreat. It’s important for those of us who value our rights as citizens to stand up for them. — As told to Claire Suddath


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