The former district attorney who became famous for her prosecution in the "Central Park jogger" case, which involved the wrongful convictions of five teenagers of color, is now facing renewed criticism after the release of a new film about the trial.
Linda Fairstein has now resigned from the boards of Vassar College; Safe Horizon, a non-profit for victims of domestic violence and other crimes; Joyful Heart, a non-profit for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence founded by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit actress Mariska Hargitay; and God's Love We Deliver, a non-profit that brings meals to people with HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. The Post reports that Fairstein, 72, wrote a letter to Safe Horizon, saying, "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."
Director Ava DuVernay's Netflix film, When They See Us, revisits the crime and the coercive measures law enforcement took to find the perpetrator who sexually assaulted and nearly killed Trisha Melli, who had been jogging in Central Park on April 19th, 1989. Eager for an arrest, police zeroed in on teens in the park at the time: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise.
There was no evidence linking them to crime and their confessions were inconsistent (they provided details about different attacks in the park but no corroborating details about the attack on Melli), but the teens, ages 14-16, were convicted in 1990, with McCray, Richardson, Santana, and Wise serving nearly six years in prison. Salaam served almost 13 years. In 2002, a year after Fairstein left the Manhattan D.A.'s office, an inmate named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime.
Reyes's DNA matched evidence found at the crime scene, and the Manhattan District Attorney's office explained why the five former teens should be exonerated of the rape in a 50+ page motion (PDF). The city later settled with McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise for about $40 million.
While the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five examined the miscarriage of justice, DuVernay's unflinching depiction of the dehumanizing situation the teens were placed in—and the effects on their families—have fueled new furor over the aggressive tactics from the NYPD and, specifically, Fairstein and the Manhattan DA's office. Fairstein became a national figure in sex crimes prosecution after the Central Park jogger case as well as the "Preppie Murder" (though in that case, Robert Chambers, a privileged young white man, was able to plead guilty to manslaughter for the killing of Jennifer Levin), and has become a best-selling novelist whose main character is an assistant DA in the Manhattan DA's sex crimes unit.
In her letter to Safe Horizon, Fairstein wrote that she was "sorry that the staff, through their CEO Ariel Zwang, declined to meet with me to learn the truths behind the inflammatory and false narrative... 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. 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 let the Post know that she sent similar letters to the other organizations, and complained, "Each of these organizations does great work. It's so foolish of the bullies to punish the charities. Totally pig-headed and stupid." (TMZ suggests that Safe Horizon staffers have complained about Fairstein's presence on their board since 2016.) And, in an interview with the Daily Beast on Tuesday, Fairstein said When They See Us and outrage from it is "a basket of lies."
DuVernay has explained in a different Daily Beast interview that she reached out to Fairstein, as well as Melli and other figures in the film, before starting production, "I informed them that I was making the film, that they would be included, and invited them to sit with me and talk with me so that they could share their point of view and their side of things so that I could have that information as I wrote the script with my co-writers. Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate. 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."
Fairstein accused DuVernay of creating "a totally and completely untrue picture of events and my participation" and "putting words in my mouth that I never said in Oliver Stone fashion." From the Daily Beast:
She said DuVernay erred in showing her dismissing DNA evidence that exonerated the five, and placing her at times, dates, and locations where she had never appeared.
The series also presents a fundamental misrepresentation of how the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office interacts with police investigators, Fairstein said.
Far from supervising the investigation, as she’s portrayed as doing by the Netflix series, “the police do the investigations and they don’t let us [the prosecutors] in until they finish what they’re doing,” Fairstein said.
Fairstein said she hired a lawyer to send DuVernay a detailed letter cataloguing the public record of the case but never heard from her again. She is accusing the documentary and feature-film director of orchestrating the public campaign against her.
“She’s behind it,” Fairstein said in a phone interview. “Her lies are behind it all.”
However, Fairstein's legacy has been questioned before the release of When They See Us, most recently last November, when the Mystery Writers of America decided, after other writers voiced their opposition, to rescind a lifetime achievement award to Fairstein.
Fairstein has deleted her social media accounts amidst the current backlash, which also includes calls for booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon to stop selling her books. She said her publisher, Dutton Books, has been standing by her and called them "fantastic."