Some justice might have finally come last week for the Central Park Five. The five men, who were falsely accused as teenagers of brutally raping and assaulting a jogger in Central Park in 1989, have at last settled a lawsuit with New York City for the sum of $40 million. The payoff for the rest of us will come if the very expensive lessons learned from the case prevent this kind of injustice from happening again.
The story behind the case gained traction because of Sarah Burns' book, The Central Park Five, and the 2012 documentary by the same title. What both make clear is that the men were convicted based on false confessions that were coerced out of them by detectives. And although the confessions did not line up with one another or even the facts of the rape -- like the location of the crime or what the victim was wearing -- the Sex Crimes Unit, headed by Linda Fairstein, went forward with the prosecution.
Interestingly, Linda Fairstein is not mentioned in the New York Times article on the settlement, nor in most of the other articles discussing the settlement that will take $40 million out of the coffers of tax-paying New Yorkers. And no mention was made of the Central Park Five when the Times covered the evolution of Fairstein's interior design tastes a few weeks ago in an article entitled The Case of the Disappearing Chintz. (Fairstein has gone on to an ultra-successful career as a crime novelist, writing about a bold, young prosecutor, who tackles sex crimes cases.) Although the Manhattan DA's office agreed to the convictions being vacated in 2002, Fairstein continues to maintain that the men must have done something that night in the park. In an interview with Jewish Woman Magazine, she said this about the case: "I think there's been a good amount of misreporting. And four of these five men admitted over the years that they attacked others who were assaulted in Central Park that night. It's easy for me to keep a position that I believe is right, so I'm comfortable with the original convictions."
Fairstein is by no means a singular case. Just across the East River, Charles Hynes, for instance, the famed veteran District Attorney from Brooklyn, has had his name in the news recently for a slew of deeply flawed convictions that happened under his watch. A federal court found that in one such case, the Brooklyn DA's office had threatened witnesses with violence, lied to the court and withheld exculpatory evidence. Although Hynes finally agreed to release the defendant, he gave the lead prosecutor in the case a promotion and has refused to admit any wrongdoing by his office. That case, and many others like it, has resulted in heaps of litigation that further empties the city's bank account. This month the family of David Ranta, another of the men who was wrongly convicted by Hynes' office, filed suit against New York City for $15 million. The city has already paid Ranta $6.4 million. Although Hynes recently lost his position as District Attorney, he has not gotten into any trouble, legally or professionally, for his role in these convictions.
The thing is, Hynes and Fairstein have a lot of common: they were both very good prosecutors. Fairstein took over the Sex Crimes Unit in its nascent stages and made it a model for the rest of the country to follow. It spawned other specialized offices across the country that were dedicated to taking rape seriously. That's no small thing. In 1972, the New York Times Magazine ran a provocative article entitled, Q: If you Rape a Woman and Steal Her TV, What Can They Get You for In New York? A: Stealing her TV. The title captured the depths of the apathy towards rape at the time, when New York City was averaging less than twenty rape convictions per year, despite thousands of reported rapes. The evolution of the Sex Crimes Unit under Fairstein was good for the City of New York and good for the country. (I should note that my first job out of college was as a trial preparation assistant in the Sex Crimes Unit). Similarly, Hynes was ahead of his time in understanding the uselessness of mass incarceration. He is widely recognized as a leader in the alternatives to incarceration movement, which favored drug treatment and diversion programs to long prison sentences. Brooklyn was certainly a better place because of him.
But both of them had terrible lapses in judgment that cost people years of their lives. And it's rare that prosecutors get in trouble for these lapses. (For example, see these reports by Pro Publica and the Chicago Tribune.) It took years for anyone to report on all the problematic cases under Hynes, even though the convictions were problematic at the time. Hynes is finally in hot water - not for his role overseeing all those unjust convictions, but rather because he was clearly misappropriating funds during his most recent campaign for office. Fairstein will almost certainly never face sanctions for her role in the Central Park Five case. She now splits her time between the Upper East Side and Martha's Vineyard.
The lack of consequences for prosecutors when they behave badly costs citizens their freedom, and, if you're the more pragmatic sort, major taxpayer dough. Taxpayers should understand who's costing them this money. It's not the Central Park Five or other individuals whose rights were violated or the families who are seeking damages; it's the prosecutors who violated those rights. We don't wash away the good that prosecutors do when we take them to task -- in the media, in the courtroom, in our bar associations -- for their bad acts. Instead, we might just prevent injustice and its very high cost to us all.