It was the second call, after business hours, from the reporter for the London Times when she told me that long-time New York County assistant district attorney Elizabeth Lederer had announced that she would not be seeking reappointment to her post as adjunct at Columbia Law School. The first call was about whether she should.
There’s little doubt Columbia will be able to find a replacement. Adjunct lawprofs are a dime a dozen, even if it’s a bit harder to find someone who has the experience of prosecuting thousands of cases, trying hundreds(?), spending 39 years in the trenches of 100 Centre Street. Whether a prosecutor would be my personal choice for teaching trial practice to law students isn’t the point; that was Columbia’s choice and I get no vote. But apparently, she did it well enough to remain there, be asked to return year after year. Until now.
Yes, a Netflix drama.
The dean’s letter came after Columbia’s Black Students Organization circulated a petition at the university to hold accountable Lederer and then-Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, who had received an Award for Excellence at the university’s medical school.
“While these five innocent teenagers were disgraced by the media and the American public, stripped of their most basic rights and freedoms, and robbed of their childhoods, the women who were directly involved in their persecution were praised, awarded, and even employed by an institution located right in Harlem’s backyard, which many of these boys and their families called home,” the organization said in its petition, which received nearly 10,000 signatures.
The “controversy” was ignited when Ken Burns did a documentary about the case in 2013, giving rise to window into New York City, the cops, the courts, the people, in 1989. At the New York Times, Jim Dwyer wrote about it.
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.
I agreed. The reduction of a career prosecutor’s service to one case, and a case not only taken entirely out of context, but then reinvented in a context that didn’t exist at the time, was absurd. It’s not that I’m a friend, or an apologist, for Lederer. I don’t know her. I never had a case with her. If I tripped over her, I wouldn’t know it.
But I do, only too well, appreciate that if actions and decisions were understandable, hell, laudable, at a moment in time, they don’t become outrageous 30 years later when dogma shifts and the unduly passionate see racism in the utterly banal investigation of a crime where once a city saw a woman beaten, raped and left for dead.
Since then, the case has been widely considered an example of how the criminal justice system unfairly penalizes and dehumanizes people of color, specifically young black and Latino males. While the five were eventually exonerated, at the time of the trial they were painted as violent criminals by media and prosecutors, including Lederer.
New York was a violent city back then. What “dehumanized people of color” was that they ended up dead and beaten on the front page of the New York Post every morning. There’s nothing like a good murder to dehumanize someone, and it happened. It wasn’t white guys from Sutton Place going up to Harlem to murder black guys.
This isn’t to say that there wasn’t racism, both in the city and in the system. If you were an innocent black teen walking the street, there was a fair chance some cop would toss you, hit you, arrest you for something you didn’t do, something that never happened. Oh yes, there was racism and plenty of it. But there were murders too. In 1989, there were 1,896 murders. This isn’t a racist number. It’s a count of dead bodies.
In the first episode of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series about the case, it shows three significant things: cops coercing flagrantly bad confessions from black teens essentially plucked off the street without reason; the chief of Morganthau’s sex crimes unit directing detectives to bring her the confessions of young black men, no matter what it took to get them; and a trial prosecutor, Liz Lederer, making the point to Linda Fairstein that if they couldn’t extract a confession that tied together the bad, conflicted stories, they had no case.
Was this what happened? Beats me. I wasn’t there. Neither was DuVernay. Fairstein says this was a complete fabrication, as it makes her out to be the primary villain, determined to convict young men she had every reason to know were scapegoats, innocent of any rape, and yet pushed to take advantage of their youth, fear and race to manufacture convictible defendants. And Lederer, in this story, was the tool who did the dirty work.
It convinced 10,000 people to sign a petition to remove Lederer from her post at Columbia Law School. It was fantasy. They didn’t care.
Cops coerce confessions all the time, because they’re trained to do it and good at it. Prosecutors fixate on a defendant to the exclusion of other evidence, whether guilt of another or innocence of their perp, because that’s how they believe they’re the good guys. The Central Park Five case is a high-profile example of egregious prosecutorial blindness and the great many failings of a system that’s designed to convict.
But what happened in this case, by these people, at this point in time isn’t what you see on the screen or hear coming from the mouths of the actors reading from scripts. It’s the 2019 wishful thinking of what racism in 1989 would have looked and sounded like. Except it happened nowhere but in the facile imagination of DuVernay. And Liz Lederer got canceled because 10,000 people lacked the capacity to realize they were watching a fairy tale rather than reality.
No doubt Lederer will survive without the pay check. Adjuncts are famously underpaid, and this was likely far more for the benefit of students than Lederer. Given the extent of the outrage, and inability to engage the unduly passionate with reality that denies their fantasy, Lederer stood no chance of standing up in front of the classroom without protests, crazed fury and mindless outrage.
Dean Lester played the “conversation” gambit, a “painful–and vital–national conversation about race, identity and criminal justice.” Conversations go both ways. Useful conversations are based on facts and reality. Columbia Law School wants nothing to do with a conversation. It just wanted 10,000 unduly passionate idiots off their case. Liz Lederer had to be sacrificed to the cause, and she was wise enough to walk away, leaving Columbia Law students to wallow in their fantasy because somebody put it on a screen.