The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘When They See Us’ prompts renewed backlash for former prosecutor Linda Fairstein

Linda Fairstein, who was head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office during the Central Park Five case, speaks at a 2004 event for the nonprofit Safe Horizons. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

In the mid-1990s, when Linda Fairstein began writing thrillers about a dogged New York prosecutor, she had decades of high-profile cases and convictions to draw from as the head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes unit.

One of those cases was the brutal 1989 assault and rape of a woman who had been jogging through Central Park. Though Fairstein was not the lead prosecutor, she supervised the investigation — and the controversial interrogations — that led to the convictions of five black and Latino teenagers, who said their confessions had been coerced.

As depicted in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries “When They See Us,” the teens were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002 after spending between six and 13 years in prisons and detention centers. The series has spawned discussions about racial bias in law enforcement and other ongoing issues within the criminal justice system. It has also led some viewers to call for a boycott of Fairstein’s best-selling novels and to urge various organizations to sever their ties to the former prosecutor.

Does Linda Fairstein deserve a literary honor? Critics say her past as a prosecutor sullies her art.

Fairstein’s books make a prominent appearance in the final episode of “When They See Us.” The scene takes place as the district attorney’s office is preparing to overturn the convictions of the Central Park Five, as the teens became known. During a tense meeting with Fairstein (portrayed by Felicity Huffman), Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ryan (Famke Janssen) reaches into her bag and pulls out “Final Jeopardy,” the first book in Fairstein’s popular Alexandra Cooper series.

Ryan places more books on the white tablecloth between them as she ticks off the titles. “ ‘Likely to Die,’ ‘Cold Hit’ and the newest one, ‘The Dead-House,’ ” she says. “While you were writing crime novels, Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond and Korey were serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.”

In the scene, Fairstein responds: “I watched while more than 30 detectives did a brilliant investigation. We got justice for a woman who was violated in the most gruesome way.”

DuVernay recently told the Daily Beast that she reached out to Fairstein but ultimately did not consult with her on the project because the former prosecutor “tried to negotiate conditions … including approvals over the script and some other things.” But the scene in “When They See Us” aligns with Fairstein’s public insistence that the case was investigated and tried fairly.

Perspective | The slippery moral calculus of Linda Fairstein

Fairstein argued in a letter to the editor of the New York Law Journal last July that the teens’ confessions had not been coerced. Later that year, the Mystery Writers of America rescinded the Grand Master title it had awarded Fairstein just days earlier, after “a large percentage” of its members urged the group to reconsider the honor.

One of those members was novelist Attica Locke, a recipient of the MWA’s prestigious Edgar Award, who tweeted that Fairstein “is almost single-handedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.”

Locke, who is credited as a writer on “When They See Us,” added that Fairstein “has never apologized or recanted her insistence on their guilt for the most heinous of crimes, ‘guilt’ based solely on evidence procured through violence and ill treatment of children in lock up.”

As The Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn reported, Fairstein responded tersely to Locke on the social media platform: “Why don’t you and I have a civilized conversation so I can refresh you with the facts?”

Fairstein isn’t the only figure in the case to maintain the Central Park Five’s guilt. Last year, Tim Clements, a co-prosecutor in the case, told the New York Daily News that “the facts and the law supported the convictions.”

In Netflix’s Central Park Five miniseries, Trump is called a ‘bigot’ whose ‘15 minutes’ are almost up

“When They See Us,” which began streaming Friday, prompted Vassar College to review Fairstein’s position on its board of trustees, the Poughkeepsie Journal reported Monday. On Tuesday, the college’s president announced that Fairstein had resigned from the board. Safe Horizon, a nonprofit that helps victims of violence, said in a statement Tuesday that the author resigned from its board of directors.

Fairstein, who appears to have recently deleted her Twitter and other social media accounts, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday; representatives for her publisher, Dutton, have not yet responded to a request for comment. But in an interview published Tuesday, Fairstein told the Daily Beast that the miniseries offers “a totally and completely untrue picture of events and my participation.”

This isn’t the first time a film project has prompted backlash for key players in the case. “The Central Park Five,” a 2012 documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, led to at least one petition calling on Columbia University to fire lead prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer.

“The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case,” Jim Dwyer wrote in a piece for the New York Times. Dwyer covered portions of the teens’ 1990 trials for Newsday.

“In fact, she has a lengthy résumé of unchallenged convictions in cold cases, having pursued investigations of forgotten crimes,” Dwyer wrote. “No one lives without error. And designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary.”

Fairstein’s legacy, in both the legal and literary worlds, has inspired similarly complicated questions.

A 2001 New York Times article, published after Fairstein announced her retirement from the DA’s office, noted that a Manhattan judge had recently dismissed charges in a kidnapping and sexual assault case she had prosecuted involving a Columbia University student.

“Nevertheless, in her three decades as a prosecutor, including 25 years as head of the sex crimes unit, Ms. Fairstein has been widely viewed in the legal community as skilled and fair, treating victims with delicacy and the accused with vigilance, and sifting through competing claims and sometimes ambiguous evidence,” the Times noted.

The article cited the Central Park case as one of Fairstein’s most prominent. A year later, the convictions in that case would be thrown out as well.

Read more:

Review: ‘When They See Us’ is a powerful, overdue telling of the injustices endured by the Central Park Five

Does Linda Fairstein deserve a literary honor? Critics say her past as a prosecutor sullies her art.