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Linda Fairstein, once cheered, faces storm after Netflix's ‘When They See Us’

Linda Fairstein, chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, left, enters court with Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutor who handled the Central Park jogger case. File picture: Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times

Linda Fairstein, chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, left, enters court with Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutor who handled the Central Park jogger case. File picture: Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times

Published Jun 8, 2019


New York - For much of her life, Linda Fairstein was widely viewed as a law enforcement hero.

As one of the first leaders of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, later the inspiration for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” she became one of the best-known prosecutors in the country. She went on to a successful career as a crime novelist and celebrity former prosecutor, appearing on high-profile panels and boards.

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But since last Friday and the premiere of “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series about the Central Park jogger case, Fairstein has become synonymous with something else: the story of how the justice system wrongly sent five black and Latino teenagers to prison for a horrific rape.

Fairstein ran the sex crimes division when, in 1989, a white woman jogging in Central Park was raped, beaten and left for dead. In the four-part series, Fairstein’s character is shown as the driving force in the case, urging on a prosecutor who had doubts and finding ways to explain away facts that pointed to the teens’ innocence.

In the past few days, online petitions and a hashtag, #CancelLindaFairstein, have called for a boycott of her books and her removal from prominent board positions. After a barrage of criticism directed at her on Twitter, she took her own account down. And she resigned this week from the boards of several organisations including Safe Horizon and the Joyful Heart Foundation, which aid victims of sexual violence, and Vassar College, her alma mater.

In 1993, Glamour named her one of its women of the year. But Tuesday, it published a letter from the editor saying, “Unequivocally, Glamour would not bestow this honor on her today.”

Fairstein’s conduct during the case has been a matter of intense debate and criticism since a man named Matias Reyes surfaced in 2002 to confess that he committed the crime. Fairstein continued to write books and serve on important boards even after the convictions were overturned, as the case faded into memory for many.

But the Netflix series has placed the prosecution back on centre stage, where the power of television’s narrative focus, the lightning speed of online reaction and the villainous characterisation of Fairstein have made her a target of public outrage.

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The series is a dramatised account based on the experiences of the “Central Park Five” - Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam. They went to prison for several years before being cleared, and in 2014 the de Blasio administration settled their lawsuit against the city for $41 million while admitting no wrongdoing on the part of investigators.

Reyes’ confession exposed the deep flaws in the way Fairstein’s unit had handled the case. No forensic evidence tied the teenagers to the crime, and prosecutors relied on contradictory confessions that the teenagers said were coerced. The DNA evidence pointed to another perpetrator - unknown at the time, and who turned out to be Reyes - but investigators never pursued other lines of inquiry, heedlessly assuming they were right.

But was the real-life Fairstein as scheming as the TV version? (She is played by Felicity Huffman, who was arrested in the college admissions scandal after filming was complete.) The script took liberties with dialogue and timing of events, a use of artistic license that Fairstein’s defenders describe as unfair and her detractors embrace as in broad keeping with the injustice that ensued.

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Jonathan Moore, a lawyer who represented four of the five men in their lawsuit, said while “we don’t know for sure what she was saying to the prosecutors or to the detectives,” her depiction in the series “captures the essence of who she was.”

But Fairstein, 72, called it “grossly and maliciously inaccurate” as she put it in her resignation letters to several boards.

“The truth about my participation can be proved in the pages of public records and case documents,” she said in her letter to the chairman of Vassar’s board. “But that has not been apparent to those embracing the mob mentality that now dominates social media, any more than it was considered by the rashly irresponsible filmmaker.”

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DuVernay was unavailable for comment, a representative said on Wednesday.

Linda Fairstein at home in New York in 2014. Picture: Katherine Marks/The New York Times

Until the convictions were overturned, Fairstein had been widely respected as a law enforcement pioneer. The Manhattan sex crimes unit was the first of its kind in the country, and Fairstein was made its chief in 1976, two years after its creation.

She ran that department for 25 years, and of the thousands of investigations she oversaw, including the Robert Chambers “preppy killer” case, which ended with his guilty plea for manslaughter, the Central Park case was perhaps the most high profile.

In 2002, a report by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said that the convictions against the five should be vacated and that there had been significant problems with the prosecution’s case.

The report said statements by the five defendants “differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime - who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place.” None of them accurately described where the jogger was attacked.

A duelling report, commissioned by the New York Police Department, found that no misconduct occurred during the investigation and said it was “more likely than not that the defendants participated in an attack upon the jogger.” One of the authors of the report, Stephen Hammerman, was the top legal adviser for the police department at the time.

Daniel Alonso, who was a colleague of Fairstein’s at the district attorney’s office, said that while “it’s a terrible, terrible thing when someone gets wrongfully convicted,” he did not believe the case should overshadow Fairstein’s accomplishments.

“I think it’s terrible to ‘cancel’ someone’s entire career over one matter,” he said, citing Fairstein’s history of prosecuting rapists and lobbying for policies that benefit victims of sexual crimes.

The facts now forcing Fairstein into exile have been known for nearly two decades, and she has faced some backlash before. Last year, the Mystery Writers of America said that because of her role in the Central Park case, it would not present her with an award it had already announced was hers. (In 2013, a petition circulated online calling on Columbia University’s law school to fire Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor in the case, who was an adjunct faculty member. She remains a lecturer there today.)

But the level of outrage seen in recent days has been different.

In DuVernay’s emotional and intimate series, Fairstein comes off as the primary villain, with numerous lines depicting her as bent on railroading the young men.

“Every young black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman,” Fairstein’s character says early on.

“So, there must have been another attacker,” she says to Lederer in the second episode. “One must have gotten away.”

“You honestly believe that?” a dubious Lederer asks.

“I do if it helps a jury believe what we know is true,” Fairstein responds.

Among other liberties taken by the series was in its depiction of the beginning of the investigation.

The police and prosecutors are portrayed as immediately aware of discrepancies between the teens’ confessions and the timing of the rape. But in reality the movements of the jogger, Trisha Meili, and the timing of her attack were not established until much later.

In a statement, a lawyer for Fairstein, Andrew Miltenberg, accused Netflix and DuVernay of “misrepresenting the facts in an inflammatory and inaccurate manner” and threatened to take legal action. (John Goldberg, a Harvard law professor and expert on defamation law, said that Fairstein’s position as a public figure would make it difficult for her to win a defamation suit.)

In an interview with The Daily Beast, DuVernay said she reached out to Fairstein before she wrote the script. She said she asked if they could have a conversation so DuVernay would have Fairstein’s perspective in her head. According to DuVernay, Fairstein said she would sit down only if certain conditions were met, including approval over the script. DuVernay said no, and the conversation didn’t happen.

Fairstein’s lawyer disputed that account, saying that she “only requested that DuVernay take into account public records, transcripts and written testimonies when writing her script about the Central Park Five.”

Fairstein is also, in a way, still fighting with the five. Long after her office moved to erase their convictions, and essentially without any evidence beyond their problematic confessions, she and others involved in the investigation have maintained that the men probably played some role in the rape, which they deny.

Whether the reaction to her depiction in “When They See Us” will affect her writing career remains to be seen. Her success as a novelist is even addressed in the final episode.

Fairstein meets with Nancy Ryan, who wrote the district attorney’s 2002 report. Ryan pulls out several of Fairstein’s books and places them on the table in front of her.

“While you were writing crime novels,” Ryan says, “Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond and Korey were serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.”

New York Times

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