Ken Burns film takes on Central Park jogger convictions

Ken Burns
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(CBS News) Filmmaker Ken Burns' new film, "Central Park Five," is a departure for the historical documentarian, who has made films on subjects from the American Civil War to baseball to national parks.

The new film takes on a gruesome crime -- a young woman, left for dead, beaten and raped in New York City's Central Park -- and the wrongful imprisonment of five young men convicted of the crime. The city of New York has issued Burns a subpoena, requesting footage from his interviews with the men and their families.

"Central Park Five" focuses on the five African American teens who were convicted of committing the violent 1989 crime. The young men were videotaped by police, implicating each other in the act and at the time, police said the teens were "wilding," or out to create general mayhem in the park.

Twelve years after the convictions, however, that story does not hold up. Former New York District attorney Robert Morgenthau has since said, "There have been many questions raised about the conviction of five defendants for the rape of a female jogger."

As Jeff Glor reported Monday on "CBS This Morning," Matia Reyes, a convicted sex offender, confessed to the crime in 2002. Reyes claimed he acted alone, and DNA evidence has since confirmed his involvement. When the Manhattan district attorney's office reopened the case, the confessions of the five teens were found to be questionable and the convictions were vacated. Most of the teenagers -- now men -- had already served their sentences.

Lawsuits followed and each man is seeking $50 million in damages from the city of New York. In an effort to defend against the lawsuits, New York City has asked Burns to hand over the footage from his interviews with the five men and their families.

Burns has refused to do so, citing protection under New York's shield law, which is designed to protect journalists' sources. The film is set to open on November 23rd and Burns joined CBS special correspondent John Miller on "CBS This Morning" to discuss the film and the city's legal actions.

Burns told Charlie Rose that although the film represents a departure from his traditional style, it stays true to a theme he consistently addresses. "Whenever you scratch the surface of American history, you're going to come up against race," Burns said.

Addressing the charge that the film represents a turn away from journalism and towards advocacy, Burns was dismissive.

"That's ridiculous," he told Gayle King. "This is probably the straightest and most journalistic film we've ever made. ...These kids were never allowed to have their humanity brought forward...all we said was, 'Who are you?'"

The filmmaker also defended his refusal to hand over the interviews, explaining "I just think it's a part of journalism. These are our privileged conversations...we don't want to be a part of the city's fishing expedition going after material that is not material to this particular suit."

John Miller spoke to the police handling of the case once the wrongful convictions came to light. "The NYPD did its own internal investigation which found that none of the detectives did anything improper... The DA's investigation found that they probably had the wrong people... The detectives say. 'why weren't we interviewed in the DA's investigation?' ... They're very frustrated that they weren't allowed to be part of the film; they wanted to tell their story"

Miller and Burns both insisted that Burns' team asked the detectives to participate in the film many times, but that the NYPD did not allow them to take part.

Miller also admitted to some surprise that the city is extending the legal proceedings through the subpoena of Burns' footage. "The shocking part is that the city hasn't settled the case," Miller said. "The idea that they're stretching this out for what's approaching a decade is stunning."