Those Who Send Innocents to Prison Are Not Like Innocents Who Are Sent to Prison

Elizabeth Lederer

Elizabeth Lederer

Columnist Jim Dwyer, one of the brighter lights at the New York Times, had an exceptionally dim moment on Friday (5/3/13)–comparing sending innocent teenagers to prison with holding the prosecutor who did so accountable.

Dwyer was writing about a petition that asked that Manhattan assistant district attorney Elizabeth Lederer–the lead prosecutor in the case of the Central Park Five, young African-Americans who were falsely convicted of rape–lose her part-time teaching position at Columbia Law School. Dwyer presented this petition as being a repetition of the kind of wrong done to the exonerated young men:

It was a simple task to discover Elizabeth Lederer on Google, just as those boys were easy to find in the park. The petition has found someone to blame, repeating the very mistake of the injustice it deplores.

It shouldn’t be necessary to spell out the absurd moral reasoning here, but apparently it is: Sending the Central Park Five to prison for a crime they hadn’t committed was wrong because they hadn’t committed the crime. Equating an attempt to hold a public official to some kind of account for her actual actions to locking some kids up for someone else’s crime is grotesque and offensive.

Jim Dwyer

Jim Dwyer

The rest of Dwyer’s argument makes just as little sense. “The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case,” he writes–as if prisons aren’t full of people who have been judged on a single incident, as if our society usually doles out punishments based on a holistic appreciation of an individual’s entire life.

“Designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary,” says Dwyer. “The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective.” And therefore no one should face any consequences for it, apparently.

“No one lives without error,” Dwyer notes. Well, sure. But most of us somehow manage to go our whole lives without robbing five people of more than 60 collective years of life by misrepresenting evidence.

The bottom line is that sending innocent people to prison is a terrible thing–in the same way that murder and rape and kidnapping are terrible things. It happens far too often in large part because it’s treated, when it’s discovered, as a regrettable accident–and not as an act of villainy that people deserve to be punished for.

UPDATE: Here’s a better link on the issue of Lederer misrepresenting evidence–to an article written by Dwyer himself in 2002.


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About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.