The passage of time and human error

What seems so clear in one moment can seem so misguided years later. This NY Times article, “Linda Fairstein, Once Cheered Faces Storms After ‘When They See Us”, by Elizabeth Harris and Julie Jacobs discusses the career of the famous sex crimes prosecutor, Linda Fairstein. Fairstein did much to develop modern prosecutorial approaches to rape. She helped professionalize the rape units in county prosecutor offices and her lectures and her example excited thousands of prosecutors to organize their careers along her model in the last thirty years. Law and Order SVU was inspired by her example. After she stopped prosecuting, she wrote 20 crime and mystery novels.

But the case that made her famous turned out to be one she got wrong: The Central Park Gang of Five case. Everyone “knew” they were guilty. It was obvious front page news. After all, there were confessions!

We later learned that the defendants’ confessions were proven to be false with DNA evidence, after the young men had been sitting in prison for years. Fairstein’s prosecutorial doggedness, one of the very qualities we seek in someone doing that job, blinded her to evidence that the young men were innocent. The young men were all minorities.

What’s the lesson? Humans are flawed creatures, and therefore, so is our justice system. Good people, including police and prosecutors and judges and juries, make mistakes. Fairstein is not a bad person. But in a life of doing good work, she caused some harm. And it is no accident that the victims of her harm were young men of color. We see “truth” in patterns, and those patterns see “color”. Rape causes all of us to be outraged and to demand justice. That outrage did not just lead to miscarriages of justice in the South for young black men between 1870 and 1970. It still occurs today throughout this country. We, as a society, and our hired guns, sometimes get it wrong. And we get it wrong in patterns that fit our flaws and our social cues.

The lesson is, remain skeptical and ask questions. When everyone you know is sure of something, be the person who doublechecks. It is that careful skepticism that NachtLaw clients expect us to use when facing the powerful voices in opposition, and we are so proud to use our tough questions to fight for justice for our clients.

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