People today may not recognize the name Linda Fairstein, but Ava DuVernay’s Netflix limited series When They See Us will likely change that. The dramatization of the events of the Central Park jogger case, in which five young boys were wrongfully convicted of rape and assault, puts Fairstein front and center as one of the key players. In 1990, Fairstein supervised the prosecution of the Central Park Five; today many view her as having been instrumental in obtaining the boys’ coerced statements of guilt. In the series, Fairstein is played by Felicity Huffman (who herself is no stranger to controversy these days). Research on where Linda Fairstein is now reveals someone who, years later, still stands by her decisions.
Fairstein was head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office from 1976 until 2002, where she gained a reputation early on for defending those who had suffered sexual violence. For example, she helped to strike down arcane laws that allowed attorneys to question a rape victim’s promiscuity and whether they actually resisted.
So Fairstein was already relatively high-profile when her office took on the Central Park jogger case in 1990 (after having reportedly wresting it away from another attorney in office, Nancy Ryan). Taking on the case only made her more so, for better or worse.
While some paint Fairstein as an altruist, it’s more common to find accusations that she acted for personal gain. In a 2002 The Village Voice article, Rivka Gewirtz Little wrote that in 1993 during Yousef Salaam’s failed appeal, dissenting judge Vito Titone voiced that he "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."
The reasoning for this characterization may have been Fairstein’s career goals. Sydney H. Schanberg wrote for The Village Voice that anyone who knew Fairstein knew she "harbored a dream" of succeeding Robert Morgenthau as Manhattan D.A. This never materialized, and she ended up retiring in 2002.
Salaam still maintains that it was Fairstein who blocked his mother, aunt, and Big Brother mentor (David Nocenti, who was also a US attorney) from seeing him during the interrogations. He also wrote that "police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours." Antron McCray said his interrogation lasted ten hours.
Fairstein disputes all this, saying in a 2002 interview with Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker that "it was a much more friendly atmosphere, not the bare interrogation rooms. Nobody under 16 was talked to until a parent or guardian arrived … For most of them, the substance of their admissions came out within about an hour of the time they came in."
Fairstein also maintained to Toobin that despite the real rapist, Matias Reyes, admitting he committed the crime alone in 2002, she believed "Reyes ran with that pack of kids."
Fairstein has consistently stood by her team’s actions — and belief in the Five’s guilt — across the years. After Reyes confessed and the convictions were vacated in 2002, the Five sued New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. The case was finally settled in 2014 for $41 million. When asked about the settlement in 2014, Fairstein told NBC Today that there was no evidence of police or prosecutorial wrongdoing. "So why this money?" Fairstein said. "Perhaps the mayor can explain. I can’t."
Fairstein had at that point retired from her position at the D.A.’s office and was writing mystery novels full time while serving as a consultant on various high-profile sex crimes, which she still does to this day. Her books focus on a tough Manhattan prosecutor named Alexandra Cooper, whose sex crime cases often mirror Fairstein’s real life. According to The New York Times, the Cooper novels had reached $2.5 million in sales by 1999. There are now 23 books, and some have become movies.
Described in Toobin’s piece as someone who "wore flashy clothes, socialized with the city’s wealthy and powerful, and developed a profitable sideline," Fairstein’s life was on the up-and-up just as the Five were struggling to piece their lives back together. (Perhaps proximity to money can then explain why, despite Fairstein’s track record to the contrary, she reportedly helped bury an accusation against Harvey Weinstein in 2015.)
As of July 2018, Fairstein has maintained her team did nothing wrong. In an article for the New York Law Journal entitled "In Defense of the Central Park 5 Prosecution," Fairstein wrote that "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.”
In November 2018, Fairstein was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s (MWA) 2019 Grand Master award for her novels and commitment to justice, but after outcry the MWA withdrew the award.
Fairstein has yet to speak out about When They See Us. But viewers will certainly be moved by the role in the docuseries.
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