Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined with a coalition of activists to demand that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. review cases prosecuted by the former head of the DA’s Sex-Crimes Unit, Linda Fairstein.
They contend that that Ms. Fairstein, who oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park Five, the teenagers whose 1990 convictions in connection with the brutal rape of a jogger the year before were overturned in 2002, was driven more by prosecutorial zeal than pursuing justice.
Malachi Robinson, a criminal-justice director at Color of Change, a national civil-rights nonprofit, said Ms. Fairstein, who left the DA’s Office in 2002 following a 30-year tenure there, having pursued convictions in the Central Park Five case “with impunity and little oversight” was evidence enough for Mr. Vance to reconsider the “hundreds” of cases in which she played a prominent role.
“We know if there’s one case of injustice, there’s likely more,” he said during a Sept. 25 news conference in front of the Manhattan Criminal Court building on Centre St. “She abused her power, she leveraged the nation’s racism and led a public, racist crusade against innocent children in order to secure a false prosecution.”
Even after the verdicts were overturned, Mr. Robinson said, “she still stuck to her talking points that they must have been guilty of something. And we know that something that they were guilty of is just of having black and brown skin.”
At least three of the five, however, admitted, during parole hearings and just prior to release, to assaulting other people in the park on the evening the woman was raped.
Still, Mr. Williams said it was incumbent on Mr. Vance to “reopen” cases prosecuted by Ms. Fairstein where there was DNA evidence.
“That is the most basic response that we should be able to get following the exoneration of the Central Park Five,” he said. “We now have, at least, reasonable suspicion to believe that there might be other people who might be unjustly incarcerated. There’s no one who can tell us we haven’t at least reached that bar.”
In June, following the release of a Netflix miniseries depicting the events of the Central Park Jogger case and its aftermaths, “When They See Us,” Mr. Williams and several elected officials called for Mr. Vance to look into Ms. Fairstein’s cases.
He also demanded that Elizabeth Lederer, who tried the case and remains a prosecutor in Mr. Vance’s office, be fired.
In a letter to Mr. Vance at the time, the Public Advocate wrote that Ms. Fairstein had “engaged in immoral, unethical, and illegal conduct” and called for a re-examination of the convictions in which she played a significant role. “I suspect we will find more victims in her wake,” he wrote.
Mr. Vance replied that what had befallen the five men “was a profound injustice.” But he said he did not intend to either reopen “the thousands of cases” prosecuted by the Sex-Crime Unit during Ms. Fairstein’s tenure there or fire Ms. Lederer, whom he called “an attorney in good standing.”
He suggested to Mr. Williams that he help publicize his office’s Conviction Integrity Program, which reviews post-conviction claims of innocence.
Williams: An Affront
Mr. Williams, at the Sept. 25 event, said the DA’s response was an affront to justice.
“How dare you? How dare you?” he said, implying that compiling compelling-enough evidence to persuade CIP attorneys to review dozens if not hundreds of cases was not feasible. “We have to have specifics of a case,” he said.
He said the DA’s Office already has sufficient indications to at least begin a review of the cases Ms. Fairstein’s unit prosecuted. Mr. Williams said he did not know how many of Ms. Fairstein’s cases merit review.
But the Public Advocate remained defiant, and said he and his fellow activists would continue to demand that Mr. Vance reexamine the cases.
‘We Will Hound You’
“Cy Vance, we are watching. We will hound you until this is done or we will make sure you are not reelected for anything in this city,” he said. “Do not come to black and brown churches spouting that you want to assist communities when you have a very fine, opportune time to do so now.”
Mr. Vance’s press office declined to respond beyond furnishing a copy of the letter to Mr. Williams.
Following the event, representatives from Color of Change and The Gathering For Justice, a city-based civil-rights nonprofit, carted several boxes to Mr. Vance’s office they said contained petitions with 42,000 signatories calling on him to conduct an independent audit of Ms. Fairstein’s cases.