Great Power, Less Responsibility

If you haven't seen Ken and Sarah Burns' Central Park Five documentary, I'd urge you to check it out. At the moment there's a small furor erupting over a petition calling for Elizabeth Lederer, who prosecuted the case, to be dismissed from her position at Columbia Law School. 

Jim Dwyer, who is a sobering and clarifying presence in the film, objects:

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. 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.

Ken Burns added "It is just simple retribution, and we are appalled by it," he said. "We don't subscribe to any of it."

You can read Frank Chi, who started the petition, and Raymond Santana, one of the accused and subsequently exonerated responding here.

For my part, I'm a little puzzled by Dwyer's defense. Before she scrubbed her bio, Lederer proudly advertised her role in the prosecution of the Central Park Five. Lederer did not simply fail to live "without error." She sent a 16-year old boy to Riker's Island on the basis of coerced testimony. She sent four other boys off to prison, and she did this even after it was revealed that no DNA from any of the attackers was found on the victim. The real rapist was not found because of the investigative efforts of the police or Lederer, but because of his own need to confess. If not for that confession the Central Park Five would still be considered rapists.

That the notion that someone who played a principle role in this travesty should not be training lawyers at one of the best schools in the country is somehow out of bounds is rather amazing. We are not suggesting that our prosecutors must live "without error." We are suggest that those who participated in one of the most dubious cases in the city's history, and never apologized for it, should not be in the business of educating the next generation of lawyers. 

From the petition of the text: 

Today, Lederer is still an assistant District Attorney in New York, and she also teaches at Columbia Law School. No individual who is responsible for locking up innocent boys for years should ever step foot in a classroom to teach students. Ever.

I am struggling to see what is so absurd or vengeful about this standard. 

I suspect this ultimately boils down to power--Lederer has enough so that her errors do not affect her position. Mike Nifong did not. Today Nifong is disgraced and bankrupt--as well he should be. But by the system's lights, his mistake was not prosecutorial malfeasance, so much as picking on the wrong people. 

I think Chris Hayes had it exactly right:

Along with all of the other rising inequalities we've become so familiar with -- in income, in wealth, in access to politicians -- we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.

Indeed. 

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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