Emmy-winning filmmaker Ken Burns says he is a journalist and is protected by New York's shield laws.

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New York's demand stems from an attempt to defend against lawsuits

The filmmaker says he is fighting the city's request

The so-called Central Park Five case dates back to 1989

CNN —  

New York City is demanding that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns hand over footage of the movie he made about five men who were wrongfully imprisoned and later exonerated for the rape of a woman in Central Park.

The demand is part of the city’s attempt to defend itself against multi-million dollar federal lawsuits filed by some of the “The Central Park Five,” as the exonerated men had come to be known.

Lawyers for New York City filed a subpoena demanding Burns and his production company, Florentine Films, give them the unpublished interviews and unreleased footage not used in the documentary, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“The plaintiffs’ interviews go to the heart of the case and cannot be obtained elsewhere,” said Celeste Koeleveld, a city attorney.

In September 2002, protesters in New York demanded that the men convicted in the Central Park rape be exonerated.

But Burns, along with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon, who co-wrote and produced the film, say they plan to fight.

“I’m sorry to say we saw this coming,” said Burns. “New York State shield laws are very specific. We are journalists, and that’s what this is.”

Burns was referring to state laws designed to protect journalists from having to compromise their sources. The filmmaker says he finds irony in the city’s request for the footage because he says he and his crew had been trying to get city officials in front of the camera for interviews for years, but to no avail.

“We made every attempt, we practically begged to talk to prosecutors and police,” he said.

The shield law should not protect Burns and his collaborators because they have shown many times that they were advocates and not journalists, city officials say.

For example, Sarah Burns worked for two years in the law firm of one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys and Ken Burns wrote to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, urging him to settle the case, writing the plaintiffs had “suffered without just cause,” the New York City law office says.

“Mr. Burns and his daughter have publicly sided with the plaintiffs and their families, who are seeking hundreds of millions from New York City,” said Koeleveld, “The movie has crossed from documentary to pure advocacy. Under such circumstances, no reasonable person could have expected us to participate in their project.”

Burns, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker, disagrees.

“We didn’t make an advocacy film; we made a film about the facts of the case and that is these men were wrongly convicted, and had years of their lives stolen,” Burns said. “One of the things that was stolen from these men was their humanity. In the media they were turned into wild beasts, a wolf pack, and we wanted to return their humanity. We’d have been happy to do the same to others involved, if prosecutors and police had returned our calls for interviews.”

The racially charged Central Park Five case dates back to 1989.

On April 19 of that year, a 28-year-old white Wall Street investment banker was jogging through Central Park when she was brutally assaulted, raped and left for dead. That same night a group of black and Latino boys had been in the park, throwing rocks at cars and assaulting people, “wilding” as it was called in the media at the time.

2003: Central Park jogger speaks out

In the ensuing months, the investigation lead to the arrest of five of the boys. They were charged and convicted. To many it seemed like an open and shut case. Four of the young men had given taped confessions, and despite defense claims the confessions were coerced, the prosecutors, police, and what seemed like much of the American public deemed them guilty.

Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Kevin Richardson were convicted and sentenced to prison.

In 2002, three of the convicted young men had finished their prison terms, one was on parole and the fifth was in jail on an unrelated offense when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer, confessed to the crime and said he acted alone.

DNA analysis later determined that Reyes did rape the jogger and that hair evidence used in the boys’ trials did not match.

Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney at the time, ordered a new investigation and, on his recommendation, a judge vacated the convictions.

Legal expert say the city may have a case.

“The evidence exists, the tapes and footage exists, and these people are suing the city, so you can see why the city would want to use them,” said CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffery Toobin.

Toobin: Case shows injustice can happen