Columbia Law School’s Black Law Students Association is calling for the school to dismiss a lecturer who was a key prosecutor in the so-called Central Park Five case—now the subject of a high-profile Netflix miniseries—and to offer more inclusive teaching.
In a letter issued Tuesday, the organization requests that the law school fire lecturer Elizabeth Lederer, who co-prosecuted the infamous case in which five young minorities were convicted of a 1989 rape they didn’t commit. That call comes one week after a campuswide organization of black students at Columbia released a petition demanding that Lederer step down from her lecturer post and that its medical school revoke an award previously bestowed on fellow Central Park Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein. More than 9,000 people have since signed the petition.
“Columbia Law School should fire Elizabeth Lederer, but that is just a start. The School must do more because letting one professor go does not improve the lives of Black and Latinx law students, nor does it improve the learning experience of students of color at Columbia Law School,” reads the letter from the Black Law Students Association. “If Columbia Law School wants to show that they care about Black and Brown law students then the school needs to address the racism inherent in how the law is taught.”
A law school spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the matter. Lederer is listed as lecturer on the school’s website, which says she teaches trial practice. Lederer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to the law students’ letter, the removal of Lederer from the law school was the focus of a 2013 petition, but the school only removed the reference to the Central Park Five case from her online bio. That bio says she is senior trial counsel in the forensic and cold case unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. In that role, Lederer reviews and reinvestigates unsolved murder and rape cases, it says.
In addition to Lederer’s ouster from the law school, the Black Law Students Association is requesting changes in hiring and additional training.
“We also ask that Columbia implement professionally-led, mandatory, anti-racist trainings for all educators at the law school, re-evaluate the hiring curriculum to prioritize staff that already bring cultural competencies into the classroom, and re-evaluate law school curriculums to prevent perpetuating racist practices,” it reads.
The renewed attention on Lederer and her role in the Central Park Five prosecution is the result of the release of “When They See Us”—a four-part miniseries about the 1989 Central Park jogger case and the aftermath for the five wrongly accused black and Latino teens: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. (All five were fully exonerated in 2002, after the man who actually attacked and raped the victim who was jogging in Central Park confessed.)
The miniseries portrays the prosecutors as determined to pin the crime on minorities and dismissive of evidence that would clear the accused boys, although it takes the position that Fairstein took the lead in the flawed prosecution. Lederer has not spoken publicly about the miniseries, but Fairstein wrote that it is an “outrage” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and said there was good reason to believe the boys were guilty of the crime.
“The lives of these five boys were forever changed as a result of Lederer’s conduct,” reads the letter from the Black Law Students Association. “During the investigation, Lederer and her colleagues used harmful, racist tactics, including physical abuse and coercion, to force confessions from the five minors.”