Although the young men were eventually exonerated after Reyes volunteered a confession, the film offers a broader story, describing the legal, social and political forces at play that led to this gross injustice. One of the most sobering moments of the film occurs when historian Craig Steven Wilder reflects on the case: “I want us to remember what happened [in April 1989] and be horrified by ourselves because it really is a mirror on our society. And rather than tying it up in a bow and thinking that there is something we can take away from it and we’ll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is we’re not very good people. And we’re often not.”
Oddly director Ken Burns later qualified that statement in an interview, attributing its meaning to "our own complacency". But the film's story is about anything but complacency. Certainly the overzealous actions taken by the NY District Attorney's office and the NYPD to coerce confessions from those teens resulted in mad rush to judgement. The commercial media's frenzied racist creation of "wilding" was surely intended to stoke audiences and to inspire fear and outrage. And as is so often the case, many in the public demanded swift retribution for the heinous assault and rape of Trisha Meili.
I don't find any complacency there, but asking whether or not our criminal justice system reflects the values and intentions of good people is well worth considering.