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.