By. Stephen Rex Brown
June 17, 2019
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.”
“I do not intend to take either action at this time,” Vance wrote.
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.
Williams and the three lawyer groups last week asked Vance to review all the cases handled by Lederer and former assistant D.A. Linda Fairstein. Lederer was the lead prosecutor in the Central Park Five case, and Feinstein was head of the Manhattan D.A.’s Sex Crimes Unit.
Lederer and Fairstein are accused of ignoring evidence of the innocence of the Central Park Five — teenagers Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam.
After their conviction in the savage 1989 rape and assault of the Central Park jogger, the boys spent between six and 13 years in prison. They were exonerated in 2002 after DNA evidence confirmed rapist Matias Reyes’ admission that he carried out the attack.
The Central Park Five are getting attention again thanks to a new Netflix fictionalization of the case, “When They See Us.”
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 is finally time to close this ugly chapter of negligence and recognize that the injustice of this case and the way it was prosecuted goes much deeper than we know. Let’s not wait any longer. Innocent people could be wasting away in jail. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Vance’s reply acknowledged that what happened to the Central Park Five “was a profound injustice.”
Though Vance declined to review the thousands of convictions won by the sex crimes unit in the 26 years before 2002, he said his office’s Conviction Integrity Program, established in 2010, will continue to review claims of innocence “without fear or favor.”
“Like all responsible prosecutors, we embrace our duty to pursue fairness and truth, wherever that may lead us,” Vance wrote.
.Fairstein and Lederer have faced increasing pressure since “When They See Us” first aired.
The drama portrays Fairstein as aggressively seeking to put the young teens in prison. Lederer presses ahead in the miniseries with the prosecution despite her doubts.
Dogged by bad publicity resulting from the series, Fairstein resigned from her positions on the board of trustees at Vassar College and on the boards God’s Love We Deliver and Safe Horizon, two nonprofits.
Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Books, dropped Fairstein after publishing her best-selling crime novels.
Lederer, who has continued her career at the D.A.’s office, resigned as a part-time lecturer at Columbia Law School after a group of black students called on her to quit.
Fairstein has slammed “When They See Us” as “full of distortions and falsehoods.”
She agrees that the Central Park Fives’ convictions should have been vacated — but denies allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
"There was certainly more than enough evidence to support those convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot and other charges,” Fairstein wrote.
Her defense of prosecutors’ handling of the case did not sit well with the lawyer groups who wrote to Vance.
“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.
The Central Park Five received settlements for their wrongful convictions totaling nearly $45 million.