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‘When They See Us’ Sees More Real-World Fallout, As Prosecutor Resigns Professorship

Elizabeth Lederer is the second prosecutor to resign since Ava DuVernay's Netflix miniseries premiered.

When They See Us Netflix Vera Farmiga

Vera Farmiga in “When They See Us”

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

When They See Us” is continuing to generate real-world consequences. Last week, Central Park Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein began to remove herself from public life amid backlash from her portrayal in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries. This week, a colleague finds herself in the same position. Variety reports that Elizabeth Lederer, a Manhattan district attorney at the time of the infamous trial, has resigned from a part-time teaching position at Columbia Law School.

Lederer, a lead prosecutor in the trial that falsely convicted five young men of rape, is portrayed by Vera Farmiga in the series. While continuing to prosecute rape and murder cases, she has gone on to teach law at the prestigious university. But with “When They See Us” bringing the 1989 case back into the limelight, students quickly called for her removal.

Columbia’s Black Law Students Association put out a blistering statement, referencing Lederer’s “harmful, racist tactics.” They also hoped this would serve as a catalyst for further introspection on ways the school’s curriculum might perpetuate systemic racism.

In response to the statement, and to a hostile public mood created by the series, Lederer chose to resign her position. Her path is similar to that of Fairstein, who was dropped by her book publisher and recently began resigning from various nonprofit boards. She cited a desire not to draw unwanted attention to her employers, as the show has ensured this topic will remain visible for quite some time.

In the series, Fairstein’s alleged coercion of the five young men known as the Central Park Five, which resulted in their issuing of false confessions regarding the 1989 assault and rape of Trisha Meili, is a major plot point. Lederer served as the other lead prosecutor on the notorious case.

Despite streaming on Netflix for only two weeks, “When They See Us” has quickly become one of the best examples of television’s ability to influence the world it portrays. It provides a nuanced portrayal of a historical injustice with contemporary implications, and does so while the victims and perpetrators are still alive.

Along with the documentary “13th,” it serves as the second chapter in what could be a trilogy of Ava DuVernay films about racism in the American criminal justice system.

With Emmy nominations on the horizon and the five victims remaining public figures, it remains to be seen what further impact the show will have. If nothing else, it has started a national discussion unlikely to end anytime soon.

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