Linda Fairstein, who oversaw a team that prosecuted the Central Park Five, sued Netflix and the director of the series When They See Us on Wednesday, claiming the show contained defamatory scenes that portrayed her as a “racist, unethical villain.”
Fairstein, a 72-year-old former New York prosecutor, alleged in the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida that the four-part series about the infamous 1989 case incorrectly showed her as the “mastermind behind a racist plot” to obtain convictions of those charged at any cost.
The current crime novelist is seeking damages from Netflix, series director Ava DuVernay, and co-writer Attica Locke. She claims her portrayal in the Netflix series—which recounts the case of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman, who was assaulted during a jog in Manhattan’s Central Park—damaged her personal and professional reputation.
“In the film series, which Defendants have marketed and promoted as a true story, Defendants depict Ms. Fairstein—using her true name—as a racist, unethical villain who is determined to jail innocent children of color at any cost,” the lawsuit alleges, noting she was misrepresented in over a dozen scenes.
In the Netflix mini-series that aired May 31, Fairstein was portrayed by Felicity Huffman as a racial profiler who dismissed evidence showing five teenage boys—all black or Hispanic—did not beat and rape Meili. The teenagers, dubbed the Central Park Five, were later coerced to confess and convicted.
In 2002, their convictions were vacated after another man confessed to the crime and new DNA evidence emerged. All five were later awarded $41 million in a lawsuit against the city. The case is now widely viewed as an example of racial profiling and a miscarriage of justice.
“Throughout the film series, Ms. Fairstein is portrayed as making statements that she never said, taking actions that she did not take—many of them racist and unethical, if not unlawful—in places that she never was on the days and times depicted,” the lawsuit alleges. “On a number of occasions, Ms. Fairstein is portrayed using inflammatory language, referring to young men of color as ‘thugs,’ ‘animals’ and ‘bastards,’ that she never used.”
Fairstein’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, said the veteran prosecutor was also incorrectly portrayed as being in charge of the investigation. As head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes unit, she oversaw the team that prosecuted the teenagers.
“Most glaringly, the film series falsely portrays Ms. Fairstein as in charge of the investigation and prosecution of the case against The Five, including the development of the prosecution’s theory of the case. In truth, and as detailed in the lawsuit, Ms. Fairstein was responsible for neither aspect of the case,” Miltenberg said in a statement Wednesday.
After the show’s release revitalized public scrutiny of her role in the case, Fairstein, a best-selling crime novelist, was dropped by her publisher and was forced to resign from the board of three charities—Safe Horizon victims services agency, God’s Love We Deliver, and Joyful Heart Foundation—and Vassar College.
The Columbia Law School Black Student Organization also posted a Change.org petition demanding the university rescind an award and fire another prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer. For several days, a #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag trended on Twitter.
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, the former sex crimes investigator does not admit any wrongdoing in the case, and instead attacks Netflix and the production team for the “false and defamatory matter in nearly every scene in the three episodes in which her character appears.”
“Defendants have Ms. Fairstein devising a theory of the case against the young men known as The Five, depicting her at places she never was, making decisions she never made, supervising police officers and detectives over whom she had no control, and putting outrageously offensive words in her mouth that she never uttered,” the lawsuit states, noting Netflix did not consult Fairstein about her role in the case.
This is not the first time Fairstein has called out DuVernay. In a June 10 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Fairstein called DuVernay’s dramatization of the polarizing crime an “outrage.” Days earlier, Fairstein further criticized the Netflix show in an interview with The Daily Beast—calling the series a “basket of lies.”
Miltenberg, Fairstein’s lawyer, said in a statement to The Daily Beast that the decision to take legal action was not intended to re-litigate the Central Park Five case—noting she agreed with the decision of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to overturn the conviction—but to stop the “deliberate and vicious attempt to assassinate” her character in the Netflix series.
“Since 1972, she devoted her professional life to protecting scores of victims of sexual violence—including pioneering many changes in the law, introducing the use of DNA technology to sex crimes investigations, and creating innovative techniques to advance the investigation of these heinous crimes—including means of exonerating those wrongly accused,” Miltenberg said.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Netflix said it planned to “vigorously defend” the “frivolous lawsuit” that they believed held no merit.
“We intend to vigorously defend When They See Us and Ava DuVernay and Attica Locke, the incredible team behind the series,” the production house added.
This is the second lawsuit Netflix is facing in relation to the Central Park Five mini-series. Last fall, John E. Reid and Associates, a police interrogation firm, also sued Netflix for allegedly defaming the “Reid Technique” for interrogating suspects. Netflix has since argued that the lawsuit was intended to chill free speech on a controversial police tactic.
Researcher William Bredderman contributed to this report.