Linda Fairstein is feeling the heat from prize-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, which portrays the retired New York sex-crimes prosecutor as a purveyor of injustice who racially profiled and railroaded the so-called Central Park Five three decades ago.
A #cancellindafairstein hashtag has been trending on Twitter in recent days. A petition demanding retailers and publishers pull her crime novels drew more than 40,000 signatures in a day. She was called corrupt, racist, and “the face of evil” on social media after the show premiered.
“It’s a basket of lies,” Fairstein, 72, told The Daily Beast as the furor spread this week.
Of course, Fairstein doesn’t simply object to the Netflix miniseries; she has spent decades arguing against the evidence.
Despite the fact that DNA from semen collected during the Central Park Five investigation never connected any of the teens to the savage 1989 rape of a white female jogger—and was ultimately matched to a convicted serial rapist and murderer who confessed to the attack in 2002—Fairstein has continued to defend the prosecution’s judgment that the black teens were guilty.
“Two juries heard that the DNA in and on the jogger’s body was not from any of the 5—and still they convicted on the theory that the missing attacker, who had run with the crowd of 32 young men who rioted in the park, had not yet been caught,” Fairstein wrote in a July 2018 New York Law Journal article. She argued that the prosecutors and investigators can’t be blamed for their theory because there existed no national DNA database until a decade later that would have allowed them to identify the real rapist using the genetic materials collected from other crimes.
Even before DuVernay’s dramatization of Fairstein’s role in the case, the ex-prosecutor faced repercussions. Last November, for instance, the Mystery Writers of America rescinded a “Grand Master” award it planned to give to Fairstein after bitter protests from its members.
Fairstein, who has continued to defend her handling of the case and even claimed—in the same New York Law Journal essay—that the false confessions of the five teenagers were not coerced, has even been the target of demands that she herself be charged with prosecutorial misconduct.
“Even if it’s 30 years later,” Raymond Santana, one of the exonerated five, told TMZ. “She has to pay for her crime.”
DuVernay’s four-part series has revived years of simmering outrage at the way New York’s political, legal, and media establishments—personified by Fairstein—made scapegoats of five black teenagers who, as DNA evidence available at the time ultimately demonstrated, were innocent. The case remains a racially divisive and painful blot on a liberal-minded city that prides itself on diversity and inclusion.
In 2002, after the five had already served more than a decade behind bars, convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes, who was already serving a life sentence for other crimes but was never considered a suspect in the Central Park attack, confessed to raping jogger Trisha Meili—which was quickly confirmed by the DNA evidence from semen discovered during the investigation.
While Fairstein’s boss, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, promptly recommended vacating the convictions of the Central Park Five—for whom real-estate impresario Donald Trump had purchased full-page newspaper ads demanding a revival of the death penalty—Fairstein remained unmoved.
“I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids,” she told The New Yorker in 2002. “He stayed longer when the others moved on. He completed the assault. I don’t think there is a question in the minds of anyone present during the interrogation process that these five men were participants, not only in the other attacks that night but in the attack on the jogger.”
In a phone interview with The Daily Beast, Fairstein attacked both the Netflix miniseries and DuVernay, who has claimed that Fairstein wanted to control how she was portrayed in the miniseries.
“Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate,” DuVernay recently told Daily Beast Entertainment Editor Marlow Stern, saying she “reached out” to the former prosecutor, among others, as she was developing the Netflix project. “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’s response to that? “It never happened,” she said.
The series dramatizes Fairstein—who is played by real-life college-admissions cheating-scandal felon Felicity Huffman—as the prime mover behind the police investigation and persecution of the five teens.
Fairstein said that presents “a totally and completely untrue picture of events and my participation,” including “putting words in my mouth that I never said in Oliver Stone fashion”—such as ordering the cops to conduct an indiscriminate sweep of Harlem for “black males” and “thugs.” 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.”
DuVernay didn’t respond to a detailed request for comment emailed to her production company in Los Angeles.
Fairstein added that the experience of being targeted on Twitter—she deleted her account on Monday—has been “dreadful.”
Several of the Central Park Five have been vocal in supporting a Fairstein boycott. But Fairstein said publisher Dutton has been steadfast in supporting her amid the controversy.
“My publisher is fantastic,” she said.
Dutton Publisher Christine Ball didn’t respond to a request for comment.