The lawyer who led the prosecution on the notorious Central Park jogger rape case is resigning her position at Columbia Law School as backlash mounts from the portrayal of the case in a Netflix miniseries.
Elizabeth Lederer, who was the assistant district attorney who tried the case in 1990 and still works for the district attorney’s office in Manhattan, told the law school Wednesday that she would not seek reappointment in her position as a part-time lecturer at the school, Dean Gillian Lester told students.
“I’ve enjoyed my years teaching at CLS, and the opportunity it has given me to interact with the many fine students who elected to take my classes,” Lederer said, according to a statement a school spokeswoman provided. “However, given the nature of the recent publicity generated by the Netflix portrayal of the Central Park case, it is best for me not to renew my teaching application.”
Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix’s miniseries “When They See Us” tells the story of the Central Park Five and their wrongful convictions in the case of the jogger who was raped and beaten. The five teenagers — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam — were all between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were arrested, and they went on to serve between six and 13 years in prison after convictions in two 1990 trials.
But they were exonerated in 2002 after a serial rapist confessed to be the perpetrator of the attack, and the case is now routinely mentioned as an example of the way that racial biases play out in high-profile crimes.
Lederer, who is played by Vera Farmiga in the series, has faced calls to resign before. In 2013, a documentary by Ken Burns about the case also touched off calls for her resignation, including a digital petition that about 5,000 people signed. But that effort fizzled away.
The anger in reaction to the Netflix series, a dramatic and not strictly journalistic portrayal of the case, has been swift and severe.
Linda Fairstein, the former head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who was involved with the case, resigned from the boards of Vassar College as well as several nonprofit groups. Now a best-selling crime novelist, she was also dropped by her publisher, Dutton, last week.
Fairstein, who is played by Felicity Huffman in the miniseries, has blasted the dramatic portrayal, calling it “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication,” in an op-ed she wrote recently for the Wall Street Journal.
While Fairstein has remained in the headlines for much of the past week, Lederer floated mostly under the radar, despite some calls in social media for her to be “canceled.”
That changed Tuesday after Columbia’s Black Law Students Association wrote a letter to the law school asking for her to be fired.
“The lives of these five boys were forever changed as a result of Lederer’s conduct,” it said. “During the investigation, Lederer and her colleagues used harmful, racist tactics, including physical abuse and coercion, to force confessions from the five minors.”
The black students association said that all Columbia had done after an outcry six years ago was to remove a reference to Lederer’s work on the case from her official bio with the school.
Lederer did not respond to a request for comment sent to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. A voicemail box for a cellphone listed for her in public records was full.
New York Times writer Jim Dwyer wrote in defense of her after the petition circulated in 2013, noting that Ken Burns said he was “appalled” by what he called an attempt at “simple retribution.”
“We don’t subscribe to any of it,” Burns told the Times.
Dwyer wrote that "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,” he wrote. “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.”
He noted that Lederer had wrongly told a jury that hair found in the clothing of one of the boys matched the victim’s hair, though DNA tests later showed that not to be the case.