Former prosecutor and successful crime novelist Linda Fairstein has been the focus of public outrage following Netflix’s release of When They See Us in late May. The series is based on the Central Park Five case and portrays Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) as an attorney who pushes for the prosecution of five teenagers despite numerous inconsistencies in their confessions, which were later reported to have been coerced. Fairstein detailed her criticisms of it in an op-ed with the Wall Street Journal. In her words, the show is “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.”
In wake of When They See Us, Fairstein has suffered a number of professional pitfalls. Not only has the author been dropped by her publisher, Dutton, she has also faced boycotts and was forced to step down from multiple nonprofit boards.
In 1989, when five black and Latino teenagers were arrested and accused of brutally raping and beating a white woman who had been out for a jog in Central Park, Ms. Fairstein was at the helm of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Although they were initially convicted for the alleged crime, the sentences were later vacated when a different man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. His confession was backed by DNA evidence, and the perpetrator confirmed that he acted alone.
In her op-ed, which was published on Monday night, Fairstein continued to attack the four-part series created by Ava DuVernay. “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,” Fairstein wrote. “None of this is true.”
The retired prosecutor continued to assert that there were discrepancies between the facts as she knew them and how they were dramatized in DuVernay’s series. Of the film’s “most egregious falsehoods,” to quote Fairstein, was its depiction of the teenagers being held without food, and with their parents occasionally absent while they were being questioned by officers. “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,” Fairstein wrote. “They didn’t, because it never happened.”
Fairstein’s assertions do not always align with records of the case. According to a 2003 report, these concerns had been raised by the defendants during a pretrial hearing.
While Fairstein acknowledged that the rape charges were rightfully vacated in 2002, she persists that they should have been held to other convictions for other crimes. She maintains that, according to accusations allegedly backed by testimonies, the teenagers had been involved in other assaults and robberies that night.
These accusations have also been subject to debate. In a 2002 report on the case, evidence for these attacks was also comprised primarily of allegedly coerced statements made by the defendants themselves.
When their convictions were vacated in 2002, the men had served several years in prison. These men include Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray. Although the city of New York allotted them $41 million following a lawsuit settlement in 2014, no wrongdoing was admitted.
Jonathan C. Moore, a lawyer who represented four of the five men in the lawsuit, noted the sadistic nature of the original crime. “It was a sadistic sexual assault,” he said. “At no point did the police or prosecution stop and say, these are young kids, like in the eighth grade, do we really believe they’re really capable of committing this kind of crime?”
Fairstein added in her op-ed that her portrayal in When They See Us is the work of an “evil mastermind.” When They See Us does deviate from documented facts regarding the timing of events and words spoken by Fairstein. Meanwhile, Moore has said that the series “captures the essence of who she was.”
When approached by The New York Times, a spokesperson from Netflix declined to comment on the matter. DuVernay on the other hand did not let Fairstein’s op-ed go unanswered. She responded to the former prosecutor in a tweet,“Expected and typical. Onwards…”
Expected and typical. Onward… https://t.co/phJtFpvH0a
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) June 11, 2019