Thirty years after five black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape in Central Park, the high-profile case, marked by biased media coverage and alleged misconduct by prosecutors, has once again emerged as the subject of intense public scrutiny.
In the past two weeks, the case of the Central Park Five has been the focus of the new Netflix series “When They See Us,” the catalyst for campus protests and an issue in the race for Queens District Attorney ahead of the June 25 primary.
One Queens DA candidate, public defender Tiffany Cabán, will participate in a demonstration calling for the Manhattan DA to open an independent investigation into the wrongful conviction of the five teens on Tuesday morning. Another candidate, former Judge Gregory Lasak, has accepted money from Linda Fairstein, the lead assistant district attorney on the case, who has faced significant criticism for pursuing convictions despite inconsistent confessions and a lack of forensic evidence linking the boys to the scene. Lasak has received a significant amount of money from former prosecutors.
Fairstein, who prosecuted the teenagers for the crime, donated $250 to Lasak’s campaign on April 30, according to Board of Elections campaign finance records. She made the donation a month before the premiere of “When They See Us” prompted reexamination and reignited outrage over the 1989 case — in particular, Fairstein’s pursuit of a conviction.
In 2002, a convicted rapist came forward to reveal that he had committed the attack in Central Park, and DNA at the scene matched his. The Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Kharey Wise — had their convictions overturned that year.
Lasak’s Campaign Chairman Bill Driscoll acknowledged the Netflix series and said Lasak has himself worked to free more than 20 individuals who were wrongfully convicted during his time as a prosecutor.
“This powerful film shined a bright light on who's responsible for the tragic miscarriage of justice in the Central Park 5 case,” Driscoll said. “As the only candidate who won freedom for nearly 2 dozen wrongly-convicted people of color, Greg Lasak takes this issue very personally and promptly donated the contribution to The Innocence Project, with which Lasak has worked closely.”
The city settled a lawsuit with the five men for $41 million in 2014. But to a public increasingly aware of bias in the criminal justice system, the case was far from closed.
Earlier this month, student protests and online petitions at Vassar College led to Fairstein resigning from her position on the school’s Board of Trustees, the Brooklyn Eagle reported. Fairstein, a best-selling author, also stepped down from the board at Safe Horizon and the Joyful Heart Foundation, which serves survivors of sexual violence, The New York Times reported.
“The boys she wrongfully helped imprison are our neighbors, brothers, sons. They are now men that have been robbed of a life,” wrote Vassar student Mari Robles, who drafted the petition. “I have been taught to fight against injustice by my amazing professors and classmates. I call on Vassar alums and current students to demand that she be taken off the board of trustees.”
Top leaders in city government, justice reform advocates and Queens DA hopefuls are championing a similar message.
Cabán will join Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, activist Akeem Browder and other criminal justice reform advocates Tuesday morning at Foley Square to “demand an independent investigation into the cases of those involved in the prosecution” of the Central Park Five, according to a press release ahead of the event.
An investigation by the Manhattan DA’s Office would hold the prosecutors “accountable for the wrongdoing they committed while working on the case” and potentially highlight “other cases of injustice that occurred during their tenure,” the press release said.
“It is clear that former Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, prosecutor in Central Park Five case, engaged in immoral, unethical, and illegal conduct — taking advantage of vulnerable, young, Black and Latino youth by orchestrating false confessions from the teenagers,” the press statement continues. “Fairstein's actions were not only unjust, but possibly criminal, which many believe could be reason for disbarment.”
Councilmember Rory Lancman, another Queens DA candidate, has also chaired hearings of the Council’s Committee on the Justice that featured the Central Park Five discussing wrongful conviction.