As a general principle, how can one not support the notion of prosecutors reviewing prior convictions for improprieties? After all, if the conviction was improperly obtained, and particularly if there is a meaningful potential that the defendant was wrongfully convicted (meaning that an innocent person is in prison and a guilty person is free to harm others), it would be irresponsible to do otherwise.
But that’s not the rationale behind the call for New York County District Attorney Cy Vance to review thousands of cases this time.
Manhattan’s D.A. is holding fast against calls to reopen thousands of sex crime cases and fire a veteran prosecutor accused of mishandling the 1989 Central Park Five case.
D.A. Cyrus Vance has shot down a request from Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to reopen thousands of cases prosecuted by his office’s sex crime unit between 1976 and 2002.
He also refused Williams’ request to fire Elizabeth Lederer, a veteran assistant D.A. who worked on the Central Park Five case, who Vance described as “an attorney in good standing in this office.”
The contention isn’t that there was any particular impropriety in any particular case, but that then-sex crimes chief, Linda Fairstein, and ADA Liz Lederer, generally abused their powers and were racist, based upon a Netflix drama. While the show was “based on a true story,” it was a fictionalized account, scripted to serve a narrative that its producer sought to sell. But Public Advocate Williams apparently struggles to distinguish a drama from reality, and so she, in conjunction with Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, the Legal Aid Society and the New York County Defender Services, sent Vance a letter.
The letter from the three lawyers’ groups told Vance “[i]t is imperative that you investigate every case that has been led by Ms. Fairstein and Ms. Lederer to ensure that your office is not responsible for even one more innocent black or brown life sitting in prison today.”
It’s a curious demand, framed in the most 2019 way possible. If the Manhattan district attorney’s office was abusing its power, convicting the innocent, why would their demand be limited to Fairstein and Lederer? And if this was happening, whether by only the two women from the TV drama or the office as a whole, do they care nothing if an “innocent [white] life [is] sitting in prison today”?
Vance wasn’t nearly as fond of television reruns.*
Vance’s letter to Williams, dated Friday, was copied to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, the Legal Aid Society and the New York County Defender Services — which had also called for review of the 26 years’ worth of cases and for Lederer’s firing.
Having enjoyed the experience of fighting with Manhattan prosecutors before and after the Central Park Five travesty, I would never argue against review of any conviction. Even the guilty, or somewhat guilty, were regularly denied a fair opportunity to defend. As for racism, there has always been (and there still is) a pervasive attitude that black and brown people are prone to criminality and unworthy of fair consideration. White defendants too, but they somehow only manage to get on the “privileged” radar and not the “screwed over” radar.
Review cases for impropriety, for innocence? You bet, though every case might prove counterproductive, given that the resources to do so would make such a vast, and undirected, review ineffective. But review only the cases of Fairstein and Lederer, because a Netflix drama chose to demonize two women (and somehow gave the cops who extracted the false confessions a pass), isn’t about correcting “injustices,” but elevating a fictional narrative over reality.
“Given the blatant and inexcusable foul play that Ms. Fairstein wielded during the prosecution of the Central Park Five, it is quite plausible that other innocent defendants have been wrongly convicted and are currently living in cages, lives and families destroyed,” the letter reads.
Given that these accusations against Fairstein are based on words and deeds that exist only in the fertile imagination of a scriptwriter, it’s not remotely plausible that they would serve as a basis for reviewing the career’s work of two prosecutors. On the other hand, given how prosecutions were routinely handled by the New York County District Attorney’s Office, there is sound reason to review any particular convictions where a plausible allegation of impropriety is made based on real life practices. Just not because a fictionalized TV drama said so.
*Back then, Cy Vance was a line assistant in the office.