Update: Amid the backlash to her depiction in "When They See Us," Linda Fairstein has resigned from a number of charitable boards and other organizations, including Safe Horizon, which is mentioned in this story. She has also been dropped by her publisher and has responded to the backlash in a Wall Street Journal op ed.
Time is proving to not be kind to Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor who is accused of coercing a group of five teens into false confessions during one of New York City’s most infamous and controversial crimes.
Linda Fairstein, who is depicted by Felicity Huffman in Ava DuVernay's new Netflix series "When They See Us," ran the office that supervised the prosecution in the case that has come to be known as both the “Central Park Jogger” and the “Central Park 5” case. There's been considerable backlash against Fairstein in the years after the trial, brought up again by the release of the show. So what happened to Fairstein after the case, and where is she now?
The Central Park 5 Case
The case began 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.
While serial rapist Matias Reyes eventually confessed to the shockingly brutal crime, at the time, as "When They See Us" shows, investigators and Fairstein honed in on a group of teens of color: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. The boys, who came to be known as the “Central Park 5,” were sentenced to prison for the attack — although there was no DNA evidence tying them to the scene of the crime and they had claimed their initial confessions came about as a result of coercion.
The case became highly publicized and sensationalized, so much so that even Donald Trump weighed in on it. The five were eventually exonerated in 2002 after Reyes confessed. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau withdrew all charges against the boys, men at this time, and their convictions were vacated. They later won a $40 million settlement against New York City.
Fairstein's Role In The Case
Fairstein was one of the most visible faces involved in the controversial case as the head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan D.A.'s office at the time, and was allegedly involved in coercing the original confessions from the Central Park 5.
Salaam maintains Fairstein deprived him of food and water during his initial questioning and wouldn’t let his mother be with him.
“After waiting for a few minutes, Fairstein and another Assistant District Attorney spoke with defendant's mother and told her that she would be permitted to see him after the questioning had been completed,” Salaam’s 1993 appeal states.
In fact, her actions during the case even drew ire from others in the legal field. A 2002 Village Voice article mentions how a presiding judge during Salaam's failed 1993 appeal included her by name in his dissenting opinion, eventually telling media, "I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old's confession... Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn't care."
Award-winning author Attica Locke, who worked on the Netflix series, said in a tweet, “She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five."
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."
She retired as head of the sex crimes unit in 2002.
Fairstein In The Aftermath Of The Case
After her retirement, she began writing mystery novels, some of which were 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. She has appeared as a legal commentator on news programs like the “Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” and A&E’s “American Justice.” In her most recent book, published just this year, Fairstein "explores the depths of Manhattan's secretive Rockefeller University in this timely, captivating thriller about the deep — and often deadly – reverberations of past sins,” according to a description of the book on Amazon.
Additionally, Fairstein has reportedly worked as a consultant on high-profile sex crimes. She also played a role in the infamous Harvey Weinstein case and reportedly helped bury an accusation against him in 2015, according to a 2017 National Public Radio report. She assisted District Attorney Vance in his decision not to prosecute Dominique Strauss-Kahn for an alleged sexual assault in 2012.
Now, however, she’s experiencing some blowback from her alleged past sins.
In "When They See Us," her character appears indifferent to whether or not the boys are actually guilty of the rape or not. When challenged about the logistics and logic of the rape, and how the boys didn't fit the profile or the timeline, her character is adamant on prosecuting them anyway, just intent on winning.
After “When they See Us” began streaming, Fairstein started getting slammed on social media. (It appears that her Twitter and Facebook are now down). People have called for booksellers to remove Fairstein's books from their shelves. There’s even a Change.org petition made against her and a hashtag for the movement: #cancellindafairstein.
The movement worked and soon after a spokesperson for her publisher confirmed they had “terminated its relationship” with Fairstein.
Sources at New York City's Safe Horizon, a nonprofit for victims of abuse which Fairstein, now 72, has worked at for decades, were also upset with her, TMZ reports. Fairstein was one on the Safe Horizon Board of Directors, but resigned June 4 amid the backlash.
“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.
Santana supports the boycott of Fairstein's books and says the outrage against her is karma.
“In 1989 when all those articles were written about us, there were over 400 articles written about us in the first two weeks of this case and 90 percent of those articles never mentioned alleged, that was the backlash that we received and now she’s receiving it,” Santana told TMZ. “When you do dirt, you can’t run, no matter how long it is the truth comes out and even though it’s thirty years later she has to pay for her crime whether it’s in the courtroom or socially. It is what it is.”
DuVernay told The Daily Beast that during the making of the new Netflix series, Fairstein wasn't interested in collaborating.
"Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate," she claimed. "I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this, but she tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with me, including approvals over the script and some other things. So you know what my answer was to that, and we didn’t talk."
Oxygen.com's request for comment from Fairstein was not immediately returned by Fairstein. She did, however, tell the Daily Beast the new film is "a basket of lies."
Fairstein insisted DuVernay didn't contact her: “It never happened,” she said.
Fairstein called the film and its negative depiction of her “a totally and completely untrue picture of events and my participation," adding that the depiction of her 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.”
She claims she never dismissed any DNA evidence and said she wasn't allowed in any interrogation room until after police did their job. Additionally, she has accused DuVernay of orchestrating the campaign against her, an experience she described as "dreadful."
“She’s behind it,” Fairstein told the Daily Beast. “Her lies are behind it all.”
DuVernay has not yet responded to Oxygen.com's request for an interview. However, she addressed Fairstein’s criticism of the series in a brief tweet writing, “Expected and typical. Onward...”
In an op-ed authored by Fairstein herself, published on June 11 in the Wall Street Journal, she accused the miniseries of being an “outright fabrication.”
“Ms. DuVernay’s film attempts to portray me as an overzealous prosecutor and a bigot, the police as incompetent or worse, and the five suspects as innocent of all charges against them. None of this is true,” she wrote, adding that while she agrees that rape convictions against the five should have been vacated after the real rapist confessed, she believes that the other charges against them shouldn’t have been vacated, stating, “there was certainly more than enough evidence to support those convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot and other charges.”
She contends that the boys weren’t coerced or deprived of their human rights.
“If that had been true, surely they would have brought those issues up and prevailed in pretrial hearings on the voluntariness of their statements, as well as in their lawsuit against the city,” she claims. “They didn’t, because it never happened.”
Criminal-defense attorney and blogger Scott H. Greenfield told Oxygen.com it's clear that mistakes were made in this case.
"But I know there is a lot more to what Linda Fairstein's career represents," he said. "Talk about the 10,000 other cases that she has been involved with as well. Talk about how volatile New York City was at the time this happened."
Greenfield, who represented many Manhattan criminals in the 1980s, added that New York City was particularly violent in 1989, especially uptown Manhattan, and said generally speaking, "Everybody was hard on kids, on drugs, on criminals. It wasn't a racist thing."
Fairstein reportedly lives both in the Upper East Side in New York and in Martha’s Vineyard. In 2014 she married Michael Goldberg, another lawyer, at their Martha’s Vineyard home.
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