Central Park Five prosecutor resigns from Vassar board after student outcry (Updated)

June 4, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Prosecutor Linda Fairstein, left, is shown during a news conference with former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in New York in 1988. (AP Photo/Charles Wenzelberg, File)
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UPDATE (6:35 p.m.): Linda Fairstein, one of the lead prosecutors in the Central Park Five case, and a member of the Board of Trustees at Vassar College, resigned from her position on the board Tuesday afternoon, according to the school’s president. “Linda Fairstein has resigned from the board, as of today. I am told that Ms. Fairstein felt that, given the recent widespread debate over her role in the Central Park case, she believed that her continuing as a board member would be harmful to Vassar,” said Elizabeth Bradley, the president of Vassar College.

Original story:

Students at Vassar College are calling for the removal of one of the lead prosecutors of the Central Park Five case from the school’s Board of Trustees, following the May 31 release of the new Netflix mini-series about the case.

Mari Robles, a rising junior at the private college in Poughkeepsie, created a petition Sunday to remove Linda Fairstein from the board after seeing director Ava DuVernay’s new show “When They See Us.” Robles said her time at Vassar had taught her to speak up when she saw injustice. By Tuesday afternoon, the petition had more than 10,500 signatures.

“The petition is asking for full removal. I know it’s something that’s very uncomfortable for the board, but we have to hold them accountable,” Robles told the Brooklyn Eagle. 

On Sunday night, Elizabeth Bradley, the president of Vassar College, sent out a response to the petition, saying that she did not have control over who serves on the board or whether or not they are removed, but that the school was taking the petition seriously.

“I have been on the phone several times today with the chair of the board, and he is responding to the calls to review this situation and will do so promptly,” Bradley said in an email to students.

When contacted by the Eagle, Bradley declined to comment beyond her initial statement.

Fairstein graduated from Vassar College in 1969 and her class will be celebrating its 50th reunion this weekend. Robles said students are determining whether they will stage a protest at the reunion.

After graduating, Fairstein worked for former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, where she was the chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for more than 20 years. She helped secure the convictions of the five teenagers accused of brutally raping a woman in Central Park in 1989, leaving the woman comatose. Years later, a serial rapist and murderer admitted he was the perpetrator of the attack. The Central Park Five – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Kharey Wise – had their convictions overturned in 2002 after serving sentences ranging from 7 1/2 to 13 1/2 years in prison.

The case, which came at a time when crime in New York City was at an all-time high, was marked by intense racial overtones, with media outlets referring to the teenage boys as a “wolf pack.

In the Manhattan DA’s motion to have the convictions overturned in 2002, the office found that the boys’ confessions used at trial “were actually so full of discrepancies and errors regarding the rape, even about where, when and how it took place and who was involved, as to make the statements implausible as evidence of the rape,” according to a New York Times article at the time.

The Central Park Five all claim their confessions were coerced, which Fairstein denies.

Fairstein could not immediately be reached for comment.

“Salaam still maintains that [Fairstein] blocked his mother, aunt, and Big Brother mentor from seeing him during his interrogations and wrote that the police did not let him have food or sleep for more than 24 hours,” Robles wrote in her petition.

It would not be the first time Fairstein got into hot water for her role in the high-profile prosecution. In 2018, Fairstein — now a writer of mystery novels — won an award from the Mystery Writers of America. After backlash about her role in the Central Park Five case, the organization decided to rescind the award.

Disclosure: Reporter Noah Goldberg attended Vassar College from 2013-17. 

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