Abstract: There is something inherently clear and trustworthy in the language of the legal system. We associate the opening statements, cross-examinations, rebuttals, etc. with the eventual revelation of justice and truth. In The Central Park Five: the untold story behind one of New York City’s most infamous crimes, Sarah Burns lays out an argument that five teens were wrongly accused and convicted of rape and assault due to institutionalized racial bias. In making this argument, she leans heavily on the familiarity her readers likely have with the justice system. She structures her book so as to contain an opening statement, a timeline, witness statements, cross-examinations, and other conventions familiar to the court room. Furthermore, she creates a pervasive sense of irony. Through this, she forces her readers to examine why it is that this judicial voice is so trustworthy even though it has failed so spectacularly.
Preface: In terms of my own argument, I think that the greatest strength is the argument itself. I latched onto early critiques that I could be more explicit in addressing the elements of irony that I wanted to include. I attempted to pull this thread and the broader assertions about her arrangement together, and I am fairly pleased with how that went. If I had a chance to revisit this essay, I think that I would think about ways to more elegantly relate the aspects of Nichol’s writings that I included. I think that my references to arrangement were well-thought out and that my inclusion of the voice this creates for Burns are correct and important to discuss. However, I’m not sure I really explained the “voice” itself clearly enough, or made it as integral to the argument as I made my discussion of arrangement.
The language of the courtroom is burned into the public consciousness thanks to our cultural obsession with murder mystery shows and real-life criminal proceedings. We know, generally speaking, what opening statements are. Within the walls of a courthouse, the term rebuttal has a specific meaning, and its one that those of us outside those walls are still familiar with. We understand, at least partially, what it means to be held innocent until proven guilty, and what is involved in proving a fact beyond a reasonable doubt. Generally, we also have a degree of trust and respect for those who make their living by arguing over and sitting in judgement on legal proceedings. We love to second-guess their work, but when push comes to shove, our society holds legal professionals in rather high esteem.
We should not be surprised, then, that arguments rhetorically arranged using the blueprints of the courtroom have a certain ring of honesty and trustworthiness to our ears. In her book The Central Park Five: the untold story behind one of New York City’s most infamous crimes, Sarah Burns takes full advantage of this familiarity with and confidence in the judicial system and its rhetorical signatures. Throughout her book, she makes an argument that the five teens given jail sentences in connection to the rape and assault of Trisha Meili were the victims of racial and class-based bias. This is not a new position to stake out—the novelty in the argument comes from its arrangement—and this point is significant. As Bill Nichols highlights in Introduction to Documentary, the way an argument is organized is a key part of the voice that a rhetorical project takes. In turn this voice a large part of how we judge rhetoric as trustworthy or not. With respect to documentary films, Nichols states that “the voice of documentary testifies to the character of the filmmaker” (52). The same principle is at play in any rhetorical project, and this is exemplified by Burns.
Burns seems determined to give the accused teens the defense they were never given in court and to provide them with the benefit of the doubt which they were not accorded by the media. In order to do this, Burns reaches back—in an ironic twist—to the judicial system that failed them so spectacularly in the first place. Thus, not only does the arrangement tap into the readers’ trust of the judiciary, but it also highlights the failure of this system. This is crucial to Burns’ argument, and her ability to simultaneous criticize the system through subtle irony and elevate her own argument using its conventions is rhetorical mastery at its finest.
Burns creates an opening argument in which she humanizes and contextualizes the lives of the defendants. Throughout the first chapter of the book, and starting in the first paragraph, she relates that Raymond Santana Jr—one of the accused teens—was “well liked at school, where his good sense of humor made him popular with girls” (Burns, 1). She doesn’t start with the crime. She doesn’t start with the supposed transgressions of the accused teens. Instead, she methodically relays what it is about each one that is relatable and humanizing. Her language is subdued an understated. She doesn’t declare that the crimes were out of character for the defendants and she doesn’t necessarily play up their good qualities. But she paints a very human picture, describing where they live and who their friends are, where they go to school and how several of them are talented athletes and artists. In front of the jury of her readers, she tries to create sympathy for the teens, showing that their characters are not so very different from the kids they know and love in their own lives.
Just as important to Burns is the contextualization of the city whose legal system and media had failed so spectacularly. Again, Burns uses a decidedly subdued tone—she is careful not to assign overt blame and thus alienate too many of her readers. After painting her portraits of the defendants, she describes the frequent attention-grabbing headlines describing murders, rapes, and violent thefts. And then she pivots. After stating the inability of the police to effectively combat the rising crime, she points out “they were understaffed after cuts in the late 1970s” and that “newspapers regularly reported on police officers who had been shot or killed” (Burns, 10).
When she finally, inevitably, turns to discussing the attack, she doesn’t start with the rape and beating of Meili. Instead, she follows the path of the young defendants, relaying the attempted robberies and the beating of another jogger, John Loughlin. When she does eventually turn to the attack on Meili, she doesn’t mention the assailant. She mentions the time of the attack, the brutality of it, and, most inexplicably, the fact that she was wearing headphones. But beyond this, she largely abandons the details. The first glimpse that the read might have as to her motive to this comes a few pages later, when she belatedly announces that the accused teens weren’t the only ones in the park—Matias Reyes was, and he “was listening to a radio headset” (Burns, 27).
The first chapter of Burns’ book is key in establishing her use of judicial conventions and in laying the groundwork for her readers’ eventual realization of the irony of her structural choices. However, throughout the rest of her narrative she only expands on this further. She establishes a timeline, relays the actions of the New York Police Department, and then delves into the trials themselves with meticulous care. All of this is characteristic of legal testimony. But the next truly extraordinary use of this arrangement is when she begins to quote extensively from court documents originating from the trials. She recalls full testimonies and then, as though engaging in her own cross-examinations, she pokes holes in these narratives. She elucidates on the biases, ulterior motives and motivations, and—most importantly—rhetorical choices at play during the presentations of evidence.
A poignant example of this is when Burns is examining the motives of Colin Moore, the lawyer for accused teen Korey Wise. She notes that he was an activist who “knew how to play up the political dimensions of the case to the media” (Burns, 82) and that “Moore focused more on condemning police brutality and a racist media than on claiming his client’s innocence” (Burns, 82). One can almost imagine her placing Moore himself on the stand. The fact that she is trying Moore, a part of the very legal system she emulates is an irony that should be inescapable. Her takedown of the justice system is rooted in a voice created by an arrangement rooted in judiciary conventions.
Burns does, of course, run a significant risk in taking this direction. Many readers expect an explicit emotional appeal. As a reader—or, really, as a consumer of any sort of rhetorical project—we have an expectation to have an argument presented to us upon three fronts. Very broadly speaking, these are based upon our emotional connection to the argument, our willingness to trust the rhetorician, and our ability to follow the logic of the argument. Sometimes one or more of these strategies is more effective than the others. But we still expect to encounter them all in some form. Richard Lanham in A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms hearkens back to the classical roots of these and other rhetorical strategies in referring to them by their Greek names—pathos, ethos, and logos. Burns is not lacking for the latter two, but her arrangement leaves little room for an overt appeal to pathos.
This can be disconcerting. There are many moments where her readers will expect an aggressive and overt condemnation from Burns. For the most part, these moments pass without being addressed. It may be counterintuitive, but I would argue that this lack of overt passion actually creates a pervasive and unique pathos; albeit one that is subtle. If Burns were to engage in directly pathos-based rhetoric, she would risk forfeiting her credibility and logical power, as such a strategy would fly in the face of her rhetorical arrangement and developed voice. Instead, she guides readers in a much slower and discreet way towards the emotions she herself cannot express. In creating her own alternative set of legal proceedings throughout the narrative, Burns shows how deeply flawed the original trials were. This instills the reader with a sense of just how vast the biases at play were and how horrific an injustice they created. Burns could have stated this outright, but by guiding the reader towards this pathos-based realization using her logos-and-ethos-based arguments, she is able to appear more credible and also preserve the ironies that make her argument so strikingly successful.
Burns makes a compelling argument, but it is one that takes time to fully understand. She creates a persistent irony, made possible by the very organization of her argument to present a nuanced case. Over the years, the case of the Central Park Five has been discussed and relitigated in the courtrooms, newspapers, and dining room tables of America ad nauseum. It is a testament to the strength of Burns as a rhetorician that her work is as compelling and fresh as it is. Not only does she force us to reexamine one terrible moment in our history, but she also forces us to consider why we trust the very voice she speaks to us in.
Burns, Sarah. The Central Park Five: the untold story behind one of New York Citys most
infamous crimes. Anchor, 2012.
Lanham, Richard A. A handlist of rhetorical terms. University of California Press, 2013.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to documentary. Indiana U.P., 2017.