Prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer will not be returning to teach at Columbia University Law School after students demanded she leave the school for her role in sending five now-exonerated black and Latino boys to jail in the infamous Central Park jogger case.
Lederer told the university on Wednesday she has decided to not seek reappointment as a part-time lecturer because of the publicity that has come after the airing of “When They See Us,” a new Netflix portrayal of the 1989 case that made national news, according to a statement to students from the school’s dean initially obtained by Bloomberg Law.
“The mini-series has reignited a painful ― and vital ― national conversation about race, identity, and criminal justice,” said Dean Gillian Lester. “I am deeply committed to fostering a learning environment that furthers this important and ongoing dialogue, one that draws upon the lived experiences of all members of our community and actively confronts the most difficult issues of our time.”
Lederer is responsible for prosecuting the so-called Central Park Five ― Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise ― in the assault and rape of a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. The boys, ages 14 to 16 at the time, were coerced into confessions and then wrongfully convicted. They spent years in prison before DNA evidence from a man who confessed to the attack in 2002 vindicated them.
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.
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.
Fairstein, now a mystery novelist, has also faced renewed backlash this month for her role in overseeing the prosecutions of the boys. She resigned from several boards and was dropped by her publisher after the May 31 release of the Netflix scripted series.
Fairstein, who led the Manhattan sex crimes unit at the time, has repeatedly defended her office’s handling of the case and accused “When They See Us” director Ava DuVernay of portraying her as an “overzealous prosecutor and a bigot,” which she denied.