Why Pick on Liz Lederer?

The great Jim Dwyer, for whom the New York Times should consider itself incredibly fortunate to have in its employ, didn’t let Ken Burn’s “The Central Park Five” go without notice.  It told the story of the five young men who confessed to a heinous rape of a jogger in Central Park, a crime that grabbed the anger of the city and gave birth to the word “wilding” in the minds of Sutton Place residents.

Except they didn’t do it, as DNA later revealed.

A fellow named Frank Chi watched the documentary and, apparently not a reader of SJ and unaware of the outcome, asked a relevant question: So what became of the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer?

Mr. Chi searched the Internet for the lawyer who prosecuted the case, Elizabeth Lederer. He saw that she was still an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, and is an adjunct member of the faculty at the School of Law at Columbia.

It didn’t sit well with Chi that these five boys were falsely convicted based in part on Lederer’s use of false confessions and false claims.

Ms. Lederer wrongly told the jury that hair found in the clothing of one of the boys “matched” hair from the victim, a seeming corroboration of the confused, rambling confessions. Even at the time, that overstated the evidence. More than a decade later, DNA tests would show that the hair did not come from the jogger.

She was not without significant responsibility for the debacle.  As District Attorney Robert Morgenthau later said

A comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies. … The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime — who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place. … In many other respects the defendants’ statements were not corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence. And some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact.

Who cared at the time? They were guilty. Lederer said so. Her supervisor, Linda Fairstein, was certain of it.  And if they were sure of their guilt, and the crime was heinous, and the City was outraged, that was enough. More than enough.  Except they didn’t do it.

Chi started a petition against Lederer to get her fired from her teaching gig at Columbia Law School, where her bio included the highlight of her career, the conviction of the Central Park Five.  The petition grew legs.

As of Thursday, more than 5,000 people had signed. “It snowballed,” Mr. Chi said in a telephone interview. “It really hit a nerve.”

And it should have hit a nerve. With an attention span that makes gnats jealous, this disgrace of the criminal justice system shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should the role of the participants in the fiasco be whitewashed.  It happened. We need to remember it happened, in homage to George Santayana’s admonition.

But true as that may be, it doesn’t answer the question of why pick on Liz Lederer.  Dwyer makes the point:

The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case. In fact, she has a lengthy résumé of unchallenged convictions in cold cases, having pursued investigations of forgotten crimes. No one lives without error. And designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary. The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective; it grew in the soils of a rancid, angry, fearful time.

It was a bad time, a horrible time, when blind rage compelled a city to forsake reason and lust for blood.  And now that we’re beyond that moment when calm deliberation eluded us, where we can clearly see the terrible result of our knee-jerk demand for villains to blame, we shouldn’t repeat our error and focus our new rage on a new villain.

Yes, Lederer’s role in the conviction of five innocent youths shouldn’t be the highlight of her career, the piece she has chosen to include in her law school teaching bio as the aspect of her career her students should seek to emulate.  It’s the Paris Hilton Syndrome, the ugly desire for celebrity, even if it’s based on notoriety, to make a person stand out from the crowd, to “matter” in the only way anybody seems to these days, by connecting oneself to a high profile event.  It’s embarrassing standing alone, like a child screaming “look at me” to the grown ups, but it seems to be the preferred measure for lawyers.

Yet, Jim Dwyer is absolutely right when he writes, “no one lives without error.”  Liz Lederer’s life is not defined by this one disgraceful case.

My pal, Tamar Birckhead, who defended the monumentally goofy shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, whose legacy is the requirement that we go barefoot, if only for a few minutes, in airports,  made the same point in another context.

I’ve been occupied with putting myself out there (via print, radio & cable news) to share the message that even those charged with the most heinous offenses are still human beings, that we are each more than the very worst thing we have done, and that execution is morally wrong.

Tamar has been cable TV’s poster girl for lawyers defending terrorists, and gets her sound bite whenever there is a gap in the news cycle. Unlike Dwyer’s reference to Liz Lederer, Tamar refers to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber.

See how that works?

Some will argue that neither the society, the media nor the courts will show such thoughtfulness to Tsarnaev, to be open-minded enough to recognize that this one event, horrible as it may be, isn’t the sum total of a human being’s life, as if he didn’t do good things too, have people who loved him, helped kittens.  Why then, they contend, should anyone be kind to Liz Lederer for her role in the Central Park jogger case, her role in convicting five innocent youths to be condemned to life in prison?

Because we are all far, far better off ending the cycle of anger and hatred toward others. As we hope for a larger vision for Tsarnaev, one that doesn’t demand he die for this horrible deed as if he did nothing in his life except this, we do better to apply the same beliefs to everyone, Liz Lederer included.

And Lederer removed the offending claim to celebrity from her Columbia Law School bio.

16 thoughts on “Why Pick on Liz Lederer?

  1. eowyn

    I would agree that a person shouldn’t be judged by one mistake … until they brag about that mistake as being a righteous act.

    But what bothers me most, I think, is that as a teacher you have to be more aware of your words. And that includes your biography. At the point where you include a bad mistake – ruining at least five lives – on your bio, you imply that your work was good, and noteworthy, in a way that should be emulated.

    That strikes me as a far more grievous mistake than the original trial, because it is now a pattern of mistakes rather than a singleton.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    What, then, to do about people who are granted considerable power and trust by the citizens, who then abuse that trust? If there are no consequences, then the actions will be repeated, ad infinitum. Ms. Lederer did not commit a wrongful action on her own; she used the power of the State. A power granted to her with stipulations as to how that power should be used. Although her boasting of such perfidy is certainly in poor taste, that is not the real issue. We grant the power of prosecution to individuals with the expectation they will use it as responsibly and honorably as they can. Not without errors, because that isn’t possible; but we should hold such people to a standard equal to the power they wield. There is a difference between inevitable errors and abuse of trust.

  3. SHG

    Was she bragging about it as being a righteous act? I’m not at all sure that’s what it was.  I suspect it was more her 15 minutes of fame, and whether it turns out to be fame, notoriety, or anything in between, we have become a society that adores celebrity.  This was all she had to claim celebrity.

    I recently tried a case before the judge who tried the case against the police officers who kill Amadou Diallo. He made sure off the bat that we knew of his famous case. Had I been the judge, I would have been ashamed of myself, but not him.

  4. SHG

    And so she should be punished for her error? Fair enough. But her entire career, entire life, characterized solely by that error?  No more than every person who commits a serious felony should automatically get life in prison.

  5. Bruce Coulson

    Did Mz. Lederer suffer any penalty from her actions in this matter? Formal charges, internal discipline? If ‘yes’, then any objections should be raised toward whether the punishment fitted the offense, not Ms. Lederer herself.

    If not…

    Ms. Lederer raised the issue of her involvement in this case. Ex-cons may be required to note their prior convictions when seeking employment, but unless it serves some personal or professional need, rarely advertise their previous errors.

    The law has statues of limitations; public opinion, societal censure, and notoriety do not. And these measures will be used if the law fails (or appears to fail) to provide justice.

    Not being an elected official, I can admit that I’m unsure as to what the answer might be; but there should be a middle ground between complete ruination and simply ignoring such a breach of trust.

  6. SHG

    No, I’m not aware of Lederer suffering any consequences aside from the court of public opinion. It wasn’t exactly kind to her, but then, it doesn’t seem to have hurt her much either.

  7. ShelbyC

    “The petition has found someone to blame, repeating the very mistake of the injustice it deplores.”

    The petition has found the person nominally responsible for the case. I’m not sure how you can compare that to convicting 5 innocent people.

  8. SHG

    No, they aren’t comparable at all if we look to consequence.  But we’re working with concepts here, and they serve to make the point.

  9. ppnl

    I’m reminded of the goatf***** joke. I would link but I seem to remember this site frowns on external links.

  10. R.P.

    From a moral standpoint, intentions are everything. If it could be shown that Lederer intentionally (or even recklessly) prosecuted the defendants without regard to their guilt, she has committed a heinous act. But if she made a mistake, was negligent, etc., the point was she was trying to do justice. Unfortunately, good people sometimes get dragged into the mud in trying to fight the bad people. There is no point of comparison with the admitted-bomber: here is someone whose goal was to destroy as much life as possible, who killed police officers while escaping and would have killed more if he could have. So, no, the admitted-bomber is not a human being (unless you’re just speaking literally but I don’t think you are), his entire life is this evil act, and we shouldn’t even refer to him by name. Anything else about him is not worth saying. And that guy Tamar should be careful about saying positive things about the admitted-bomber – it’s disrespectful to the victims.

  11. SHG

    I don’t know that I’d do without you, Randy. And I’ll let that guy Tamar know.

  12. Chris Ryan

    while not every person who commits a serious felony should get life, they should still face a penalty for their actions.

    As I see it, there are two problems in this case. The first is to differentiate simple error from deliberate misstep. Like felonies, errors cannot be all gathered into one group and treated the same. With the office she held, if she abused the office, she should be held to a higher standard then those of us “normal” people.

    The second problem is that it appears, at least publicly, that she received no punishment. While we can have a long debate over what constitutes adequate punishment, I think there is little doubt there should be a consequence.

  13. SHG

    Hizzonner was th one who presided over the acquittal of the cops, and was there at their post-acquittal celebration, enjoying the festivities.

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