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US judge denies police access to film outtakes

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a CPJ Blog post:

By Sara Rafsky/CPJ Americas Research Associate

As the film "The Central Park Five" heads into the Film Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles on Saturday (23 February 2013), where it is nominated for best documentary, its filmmakers can rest assured that at least one contest, the one that was taking place far from Hollywood in a New York City courtroom, is over. In a case closely watched by the documentary film and journalism community, a New York district court judge on Tuesday (19 February) quashed a subpoena seeking access to outtakes from the film, saying that the plaintiff had established entitlement to a reporter's privilege.

The courtroom battle between the documentary's filmmakers--the prominent documentarian Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and David McMahon--and New York City officials was the latest, unlikely chapter in one of the city's most notorious crimes. "The Central Park Five," which was released in November, tells the story of the conviction and eventual exoneration of five men in the infamous 1989 rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park. The film makes the case that conviction of the five teenagers on scant evidence and confessions (later disavowed) was a miscarriage of justice by the legal system and society, both of which sought quick resolution and to assign blame for an emblematic attack. The five men, who were cleared of the charges after another inmate confessed to having committed the crime, have been engaged in a civil dispute with the city for years, seeking damages for the seven to 13 years they spent in prison.

A subpoena filed in October, amending a broader version brought a month earlier, sought access to all of the film's unused footage featuring the five men, their family members, attorneys, and anyone with knowledge of the case, claiming the content was of use in the civil case. Florentine Films, the movie's distributor, filed an appeal to quash the subpoena on the grounds that the filmmakers were entitled to a reporter's privilege under the New York State Shield Law.

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