There is at least one example of how officials can handle such wrongdoing, such gross violations of justice. In 2015, Marty Stroud, formerly a prosecutor in Louisiana, apologized for sending Glenn Ford to death row for murder; Ford served 30 years before being completely exonerated. After his release, Stroud said, “As far as total peace, I don’t think that will ever occur. I think the stain is too great to ever completely erase.” If only Fairstein and Lederer could have an ounce of Stroud’s enlightenment. But too often, people have to be forced to do the right thing, especially if they’re in positions of power.
What could justice look like today? I believe Simon & Schuster should drop Fairstein from its roster and bookstores should stop selling her books; it’s appropriate that she’s resigned from board positions and lost awards. (Glamour editor-in-chief Samantha Barry issued a letter that with regard to Fairstein’s 1993 Women of the Year Award “the lens of history has shown us that we got it wrong.”)
But a trial against Fairstein in the court of public opinion is not enough. Calling out Fairstein, Lederer, Trump, and the law enforcement officials who imprisoned these boys may soothe our anger for a moment, but it does not protect black and brown men and boys across this nation. The broken system is still here. When the men of the Exonerated Five were asked on a panel moderated by Bill Keller of the Marshall Project if what happened to them in 1989 could happen today, they all answered immediately: Yes. They are right. According to the NAACP, between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America exploded from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million, with African Americans incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.
How do we ensure that more men and boys of color are not wrongly convicted? How do we make sure law enforcement is not driven by greed, corruption, and racism? We can demand that our institutions change. Yusef Salaam himself posted on Instagram encouraging people “DO SOMETHING” by lobbying the DA and Columbia University to fire Lederer, but so far officials have taken no action. (The DA’s office declined my request for comment. Columbia Law School did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
And when officials, whose job it is to protect and serve us, don’t answer, we can take a cue from art collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund. After watching Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, Gund called Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, and together they hatched the Art for Justice Fund, of which DuVernay is now a board member. Gund sold a beloved painting, “Masterpiece” by Roy Lichtenstein, and gave $100 million to fund organizations, including Equal Justice Initiative, Color of Change, Alliance for Safety and Justice, and Civil Rights Corps, that fight mass incarceration.
Those of us who don’t have millions of dollars or high-powered connections can help by taking a cue from the five men themselves. They have become advocates for the wrongly convicted, and some of them work with the Innocence Project, which helps exonerate those wrongly accused. We can all educate ourselves about the district attorney wherever we live—this role is one of the most important in the chain of command when it comes to criminal justice—and support officials like Larry Krasner in Pennsylvania and Rachael Rollins in Massachusetts who have the courage to stand on the right side of history by addressing mass incarceration.