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'Central Park 5' Prosecutor Resigns From Charity Boards Amid 'When They See Us' Backlash
Former sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein says the Netflix series pushes "inflammatory and false narratives" about the case, which has resulted in a “mob-mentality reaction.”
The former sex-crimes prosecutor who played a critical role in the wrongful prosecution of five teens of color in New York City's infamous "Central Park Five" case has resigned from a charity board and other organizations following an intense backlash to how she's portrayed in Ava DuVernay's new Netflix series "When They See Us.”
Linda Fairstein, who is depicted by Felicity Huffman in the new series, ran the office that supervised the prosecution in the "Central Park Five" case and has been getting slammed on social media for her role in the “When they See Us” began streaming, Fairstein, now 72, started getting slammed on social media. (It appears that her Twitter and Facebook are now down).
A day after sources at New York City's Safe Horizon, a nonprofit for abuse victims where Fairstein, 72, has worked for decades, told TMZ they are upset with her being on the board of directors, Fairstein stepped down.
“I do not want to become a lightning rod to inflict damage on this organization, because of those now attacking my record of fighting for social justice for more than 45 years,” Fairstein wrote in a letter to Safe Horizon's chairman, the New York Post reports.
She added that she is "sorry that the staff [of Safe Horizon], through their CEO Ariel Zwang, declined to meet with me to learn the truths behind the inflammatory and false narrative [of the new series.]”
“I know the terrible inequities of race, gender, and class that have been a tragically pervasive part of our American criminal justice system for centuries,” she wrote. “I have dedicated my career, and my professional and personal passion, to fighting against injustice — and much of that fight has been conducted for and on behalf of the staff and directors at Safe Horizon.”
Fairstein told the New York Post she also resigned from several other boards in light of the backlash: God’s Love We Deliver, the Joyful Heart Foundation and Vassar College, from which Fairstein graduated. God’s Love We Deliver delivers medically tailored food to the ill in New York City. The Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by “Law & Order: Special Victims’ Unit” actor Mariska Hargitay, says its mission is to find innovative ways to treat sexual assault, domestic abuse and child abuse trauma.
“She did step down, and we accepted her resignation today,” Terrence Meck, chairman of the board at God’s Love, told the New York Daily News.
Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley said in a statement, obtained by the New York Daily News, that “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.”
Fairstein told the New York Post that “each of these organizations does great work. It’s so foolish of the bullies to punish the charities. Totally pig-headed and stupid.”
She blamed the “mob-mentality reaction” to the Netflix series.
Fairstein has not responded to Oxygen.com’s attempts to contact her. She told Daily Beast the new film is "a basket of lies,” calling it and its depiction of her “a totally and completely untrue picture of events and my participation.” She said the film put "words in my mouth that I never said in Oliver Stone fashion.” One such depiction she took issue with, according to the Daily Beast story, is her character ordering police to look for “black males” and “thugs.”
People have also called for booksellers to remove Fairstein's books from their shelves. After she retired as head of the sex crimes unit in 2002, she began writing mystery novels, some of which became best-sellers, that are mostly about a Manhattan prosecutor named Alexandra Cooper, who often prosecutes sex crimes. In total, she has written 23 books and has received a handful of literary awards. There’s now a Change.org petition with nearly 80,000 signatures made to have those books removed and a hashtag for the movement: #cancellindafairstein.
Fairstein was a sex-crimes prosecutor when Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was attacked while out on a run in Central Park on April 19, 1989. She was severely beaten and raped, to the point where she almost died from her injuries. Investigators and Fairstein honed in on a group of teens: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. The boys admitted to playing a role in the attack, but later said their confessions were coerced by investigators who took advantage of their age. Additionally, there was no DNA evidence tying them to the scene of the crime. Still, they were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 13 years. The five were eventually exonerated in 2002 after serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and investigators matched his DNA to that taken from the scene. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau withdrew all charges against the boys, men at this time, and their convictions were vacated. They later won a $41 million settlement against New York City.
Fairstein has never apologized for her role in the prosecution of the five even after Matias came forward. She told the New Yorker in 2002, "I think [Matias] Reyes ran with that pack of kids," and maintained the confessions took place in "a much more friendly atmosphere, not the bare interrogation rooms.”
She later wrote in the New York Law Journal in 2018, "The questioning [of the Central Park Five] was respectful, dignified, carried out according to the letter of the law and with sensitivity to the young age of the men."
DuVernay told The Daily Beast that during the making of the new Netflix series, she reached out to Fairstein but she tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with DuVernay, including approvals over the script. Fairstein insisted DuVernay didn't contact her: “It never happened,” she said.