By Jeff Labrecque
October 03, 2012 at 06:38 PM EDT

Central Park Five

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Ken Burns and the filmmakers behind The Central Park Five, a documentary about the wrongful conviction of five minority teens for a 1989 Central Park rape, will defy a subpoena from the city of New York, which is engaged in a multimillion federal suit with the exonerated former suspects.

After serving prison sentences, the five men were cleared of wrongdoing with the help of DNA evidence in 2002 and have been in litigation with the City for the last nine years. On Sept. 12, the filmmakers received a subpoena from the City requesting access to the film’s interviews and unreleased footage, but in a statement today, Burns and co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon’s attorney said they would not comply, claiming that the City’s request was “neither appropriate nor enforceable under the governing law for subpoenas served on professional journalists exercising their right of independent free speech.”

Click below for the entire statement:

“We have long expected the subpoena,” said Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, the film’s directors. “For the last ten years the City has refused to settle the civil rights lawsuit brought by these young men. This strikes us as just another effort to delay and deny closure and justice to these five men, each of whom was cleared of guilt even though they served out their full and unjustified terms.

“As you can imagine, we strongly believe in the media’s right to investigate and report on these and other issues and that this process, including the reporting notes and outtakes, come under the New York reporters’ shield law. The government has an exacting burden before it can obtain these and other materials.”

The Central Park Five examines how the legal system’s rush to judgment-fueled by a city racially divided and fearful of crime-resulted in false confessions and no reassessment of the charges as conflicting evidence came in. This left a brutal rapist on the streets and robbed five innocent kids of their youth, all of whom served out their full terms. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, after directing a thorough re-investigation when the actual rapist came forward and confessed, and realizing his office’s mistakes, joined with the defense to request that the convictions be vacated, which was instantly granted by Judge Charles Tejada.

In a letter to the City’s Law Department, John Siegal, the attorney retained by Florentine Films, explained that the subpoena was “overbroad,” since it seeks all materials the filmmakers collected in the course of researching, shooting and editing the film. “The subpoena served by your office is neither appropriate nor enforceable under the governing law for subpoenas served on professional journalists exercising their right of independent free speech and comment on a matter of public importance,” Mr. Siegal wrote.

“Florentine Films has carefully considered the subpoena and is sensitive to the important work performed by your office and the issues involved in the case. But, due to a deeply held belief that its future ability to make films about matters of public interest would be compromised by complying with the subpoena, Florentine Films respectfully intends to invoke its constitutional and statutory rights and withhold the unpublished materials sought by your office.”

In the letter, Mr. Siegal explained as well that Florentine Films has had no financial relationship with those interviewed in the film, nor with any of their representatives.

UPDATE: In a written response to Florentine Films’ statement, New York City’s attorneys have narrowed the scope of their subpoena and called into question the objectivity of the filmmakers, noting that Ken Burns has lobbied the Mayor personally for the City to settle the case. Celeste Koeleveld, New York City’s executive assistant corporation counsel for Public Safety, responded in a statement:

“Mr. Burns and his daughter have publicly sided with the plaintiffs and their families, who are seeking hundreds of millions from New York City.  Sarah Burns worked for years as a paralegal for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, and Mr. Burns has stated multiple times, before and since the film’s release, that his goal is to ‘put pressure on the City to settle’ and to influence the jury.  The movie has crossed from documentary to pure advocacy.  Under such circumstances, no reasonable person could have expected us to participate in their project.  The plaintiffs’ interviews go to the heart of the case and cannot be obtained elsewhere.  If the plaintiffs truly want an open airing of the facts, they should encourage the filmmakers not to hide anything.”

Central Park Five

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