The Central Park Jogger case, which transfixed New York 30 years ago after a young woman was savagely beaten and raped, was mishandled by the cops and prosecutors assigned to it. The discovery, more than a dozen years after the incident, that the one person whose semen was found on the jogger and one of her socks was a serial rapist who was not charged in the crime until he voluntarily implicated himself led to the vacating of the convictions of the five teenagers.
Linda Fairstein, the head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex-Crimes Unit who oversaw the prosecution, has remained defensive about the incident, insisting that the youths were somehow involved. The case, which three decades ago made her a media star, became a stain on her reputation. After a dramatization of it, “When They See Us,” was shown on Netflix several months ago, its exaggeratedly harsh portrayal of her brought an end to her longtime publishing deals.
It also provided the impetus for a bid by activists to have the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office reopen every case with which Ms. Fairstein was involved while running the Sex-Crimes Unit, which she created more than four decades ago. Joined by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, they came to the Manhattan Criminal Courts building, which houses the DA’s Office, Sept. 25 to press their cause with DA Cyrus Vance.
What they forget to bring was anything other than the negligence shown in the jogger case to justify that kind of examination. The thinness of their claim became clear when Malachi Robinson, an executive at the national civil-rights group Color of Change, declared, “We know if there’s one case of injustice, there’s likely more.”
His other argument was that even after the case against the five youths as the jogger’s assailants had been discredited, Ms. Fairstein “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.”
You don’t make the justice system take you seriously by hurling false claims: a righteous-sounding untruth is still a lie. At least three of the youths in the years after their convictions acknowledged that they took part in assaults on other people in the park that night. That explains why they didn’t get more money for serving seven years or more for a crime they were ultimately exonerated of committing, under a $41-million settlement the de Blasio administration reached with their lawyers—and why more than a few people believe they deserved considerably less than that.
Earlier this decade, then-Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson created a special unit to review convictions using often-dubious means won by his predecessor, Joe Hynes. A key player in the charades was a Detective whose remarkable success in cracking cases rested heavily on testimony by the same drug-addled witness, who seemed to have stumbled into every homicide scene in the borough. But that review took place after more than a half-dozen cases in which innocent men were locked up for lengthy stretches fell apart once carefully reviewed; eventually, more than 20 cases were shown to have resulted in gross miscarriages of justice by the DA’s Office, aided by the rogue Detective, Louis Scarcella.
We know of only one case—a huge one, to be sure—in which Ms. Fairstein was involved that went that badly awry. Let Mr. Williams, Mr. Robinson and their colleagues bring forth credible evidence that it wasn’t an isolated incident and they will be taken seriously by the DA’s Office. But based on what they just presented—much of it fueled by director Ava DuVernay taking liberties with the facts in her film—Mr. Vance was correct to brush off their demand for that thorough review and the firing of Assistant DA Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor in the jogger case.
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