Sarah Burns was only 6 years old when five Hispanic and black teens were arrested and sentenced to prison after confessing to the brutal rape of a jogger left half-dead in New York City's Central Park in 1989.
Only after they — the Central Park Five — had served their prison terms did a judge vacate their original convictions in 2002, basing his decision on the confession of a serial rapist whose DNA matched crime-scene evidence.
Their story is the subject of “The Central Park Five,” a documentary Sarah Burns has produced with her father, Ken Burns, and husband, David McMahon, which airs at 9 p.m. April 16 on PBS channels across the country. The show will air locally on WFWA.
The Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise — currently are embroiled in a $250 million federal lawsuit they filed against the city of New York nine years ago when their sentences were vacated.
Sarah Burns first learned about the case in 2003 when she was working for a civil rights attorney who was representing some of the men in the lawsuit.
“I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on this,” she said. “I couldn't let it go after that. There was so much to it. After college, instead of going to law school, I wrote the book.”
That book, “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding” (2011), is a nonfiction account that intertwines the lives of the five men, the victim, police officers, prosecutors and the serial rapist, Matias Reyes, who eventually confessed to the crime.
The term “wilding” refers to a group who threatens and attacks others. Sarah Burns said police first used the term in 1989 when speaking about the case during news conferences. The term continues to be used today.
“None of the kids knew what 'wilding' meant,” she said. “some thought they said it was 'whiling' which means horsin' around but not in a violent way. There's some disconnect there. Some said the kids were singing 'Wild Thing' by Tone Loc. There's something lost in the translation.”
She said the idea to film the story was so obvious as she wrote the book, and the documentary allowed the three filmmakers the opportunity to present the facts in a “visceral way.”
While production of the film wrapped in about 2 1/2 years, Sarah Burns said it took five years of research to write the narrative nonfiction book.
“With the book I was on my own, and it's less complicated (than filming) but it's intellectually more challenging,” she said.
In an attempt to bolster its defense in the lawsuit, New York City sued the three filmmakers for the documentary's outtakes, Burns said. In a recent decision U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald L. Ellis sided with the filmmakers saying they were protected as journalists.
The city has since appealed the decision. “We are now awaiting another decision,” she said. “It's not entirely settled yet.”
Ken Burns has directed and produced documentaries for more than 30 years — “Brooklyn Bridge,” “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The War,” “The National Parks: America's Best Idea” and “The Dust Bowl.”
McMahon co-produced “The War” and “The National Parks: America's Best Idea,” as well as produced and wrote “The Tenth Inning,” a two-part, four-hour follow-up to “Baseball.”
This documentary is Sarah Burns's first, and said she currently does not have plans to return to law school. She is working with her father and husband to produce a documentary about the life of baseball player Jackie Robinson, which is expected to air on PBS in late 2015 or early 2016.