Content warning: This post discusses anti-Black violence, police brutality, and sexual assault regarding the 1989 Central Park Jogger case.
Elizabeth Lederer, lead prosecutor in the 1989 Central Park Five case, resigned from her position as a lecturer at Columbia Law School after Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “When They See Us” reignited calls for her removal from Columbia’s Black Student’s Organization (BSO) and Black Law Students Association (BLSA).
In an email to the law school student body on June 12, Dean Gillian Lester announced that Lederer would not seek reappointment to her part-time position as a lecturer. Dean Lester’s email included a statement from Lederer which cited “the nature of the recent publicity generated by the Netflix portrayal of the Central Park case” as the reason for her decision not to return to Columbia Law in the fall. (Dean Lester’s statement will be included in full below.)
The “Netflix portrayal” refers to Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay’s 4-part documentary When They See Us which premiered on the platform on May 31 to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. DuVernay’s series focuses on the 1989 Central Park Jogger case in which five Black and Latinx teenagers—Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise—were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white woman in a highly publicized trial. They spent years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence and a confession by the actual perpetrator. Lederer (Vera Farmiga) is portrayed in the series as doubting the guilt of the boys, contrasted with Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), head of the sex crimes division of the Manhattan DA’s office, who wholeheartedly believes their guilt. (The actual Fairstein has since published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming the boys were not completely innocent, despite being cleared of all charges, and accusing DuVernay of defamation.)
The series has been hugely popular, with Netflix reporting it’s been the most watched series in the U.S. every day since its premiere. Since its premiere, several of those involved in prosecuting the case have faced fallout from their involvement. Fairstein, now a mystery writer, was dropped by her publisher. It also brought new attention to Lederer’s presence at Columbia Law. However, this isn’t the first time Lederer’s position has been protested by the wider public. In 2013, Frank Chi, a political analyst unaffiliated with the university was watching the Ken Burns documentary about this case and publicized her affiliation with the law school. The petition he posted calling for her removal received thousands of signatures. Columbia merely removed mention of the case from her online biography.
Black students, both at the law school and in the wider community, have protested Lederer’s position at Columbia Law since it was brought to national attention in 2013. After When You See Us was released, BSO posted a petition calling for Columbia to fire Lederer and revoke an Award of Excellence presented to Linda Fairstein. Citing their recent report, “A Brief History of Anti-Black Violence and Policing at Columbia”, BSO’s petition states that her employment highlights “Columbia’s tradition of upholding and perpetuating anti-Black violence, racism, and discrimination.” In the past academic year, issues of racism and anti-Black violence in the Columbia have made national news after a student was taped advocating white supremacist beliefs outside Butler Library and a Black student was assaulted by Barnard Public Safety Officers in the Milstein Center. As of publication (11:45 AM, June 14, 2019), BSO’s petition has received 10,857 signatures of a desired 15,000. They are continuing to collect signatures, as Fairstein’s award has not been revoked.
BLSA has released a statement on June 11 calling for Columbia to take action and fire Lederer. However, they also highlight the systematic racism that created the legal system that led to these false convictions, “Lederer is not the first prosecutor to send innocent Black and Latinx children to prison,” they write. “Rather the legal system as a whole, including legal education, endorses a carceral system that devalues the lives of Black and Brown people.” BSLA’s statement calls on Columbia Law to “address the racism inherent in how the law is taught,” in part by implementing mandatory anti-racist training, re-evaluating hiring practices, and re-evaluate the law school’s curriculum to prevent racist practices from being taught to the next generation of lawyers and prosecutors. They also called on the law school to explain any actions The full statement will be included in full below.
In her statement, Dean Lester cites a committee on diversity and inclusion she convened last year that’s “[examining] ways to advance and support inclusive teaching and learning experiences.” Columbia Law did not respond to Bwog’s requests for further elaboration on specific steps they’ve taken to address diversity and inclusion or what actions they’d taken to address Lederer’s position on campus prior to her resignation.
Dean Lester and Columbia BLSA’s statements: