Linda Fairstein Attacks Her Portrayal in ‘When They See Us’
Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor who has been the focus of public outrage since Netflix began streaming a series based on the Central Park Five case, has criticized the show in an op-ed as “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.”
Since “When They See Us” began airing on May 31, Ms. Fairstein, who became a successful crime novelist after retiring from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, has faced calls for a boycott of her books, has stepped down from several nonprofit boards and was dropped by her publisher. The four-part series created by Ava DuVernay portrayed Ms. Fairstein, who was played by Felicity Huffman, as pushing for the convictions of the five teenagers despite overt inconsistencies in their confessions, which they said had been coerced.
Ms. Fairstein was running the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office in 1989, when five black and Latino teenagers were arrested in connection with the brutal rape and beating of a white woman who had been jogging in Central Park. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, an assertion confirmed by DNA evidence. Mr. Reyes said he had acted alone.
“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,” Ms. Fairstein wrote in the op-ed, published in The Wall Street Journal in print on Tuesday and online Monday night. “None of this is true.”
Ms. Fairstein, 72, wrote that there were discrepancies between the facts and how they were dramatized, though some of her assertions do not match up with the record.
In what she called “the film’s most egregious falsehoods,” she noted that the series depicts the teenagers as being held without food and their parents as not always being present during questioning. “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,” Ms. Fairstein wrote. “They didn’t, because it never happened.”
In fact, according to a 2003 report on the investigation commissioned by the New York Police Department, the defendants did raise these issues in a pretrial hearing, though they did not prevail.
Ms. Fairstein wrote that she agreed with the decision to vacate the rape charges, but that other convictions against the five for lesser crimes should not have been overturned. She said that there was testimony to back up the accusations that the men had been part of a group of more than 30 teenagers who were in Central Park that night, some of whom assaulted and robbed people.
The strength of those charges has been in dispute. The district attorney’s office, in a 2002 report examining whether the convictions should be overturned, argued that the lesser crimes had been presented to the jury as part of a pattern of behavior, a pattern that included the rape. The report also said the evidence against the five men for the other attacks “consisted almost entirely of the defendants’ statements” — the same problematic statements in which they confessed to a rape committed by somebody else.
But the Police Department report said that there was “no new evidence or reason to review the old evidence regarding those crimes” and noted that two of the men had admitted their involvement in those crimes during parole hearings.
The five men — Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray — had already served several years in prison when their convictions were erased. New York City settled a lawsuit with them for $41 million in 2014, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Jonathan C. Moore, a lawyer who represented four of the five men in their lawsuit, said that the men had not committed any crimes that night, but that since 1989, there has been a suggestion that if they were guilty of lesser assaults, then they were likely involved in the rape of the jogger, Trisha Meili, as well.
“That’s a false connection,” Mr. Moore said. “The attack on Trisha Meili was so different than what was going on in the park that night. It was a sadistic sexual assault.”
“At no point did the police or prosecution stop and say, these are young kids, like in the eighth grade,” he added. “Do we really believe they’re really capable of committing this kind of crime?”
Ms. Fairstein also decried her portrayal in “When They See Us” as that of an “evil mastermind.” The series does stray from documented fact in the timing of certain events and in dialogue delivered by Ms. Fairstein’s character, portraying her as seeking to ensure that the timeline offered by the boys matched actual events, or declaring that “every young black male” who was in the park when Ms. Meili was attacked was a suspect.
Mr. Moore has contended that the series “captures the essence of who she was.”
A spokeswoman for Netflix declined to comment. Ms. DuVernay, who directed the series and was one of its writers, responded to Ms. Fairstein’s claims in a few words on Twitter: “Expected and typical. Onward … ”
Ms. Fairstein led the sex crimes unit for 25 years and then went on to be a best-selling crime novelist and celebrity former prosecutor. She held seats on a number of prestigious boards, including those of Vassar College and Safe Horizon, which helps victims of abuse and sexual assault.
Since “When They See Us” began streaming, Ms. Fairstein has resigned from several boards and was dropped by her publisher, Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House.