“When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five, has been met with critical acclaim. But former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein argues in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the series is “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.”
Fairstein was head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in April 1989 when five black and Latino teens were accused of the brutal assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park. The teens confessed to participating in the attack but would later say their statements had been coerced under harsh interrogation conditions.
The teens, who were between the ages of 14 and 16 at the time of their arrests, were convicted in two separate 1990 trials, after months of sensational news coverage that stoked racial tensions and fears about violent crime in New York City. They spent between six and 13 years in prison and detention centers before being exonerated in 2002 after Matias Reyes — a serial rapist whose DNA matched with crime scene evidence — confessed to being the sole perpetrator of the attack.
Fairstein is portrayed by Felicity Huffman as a villainous figure in “When They See Us.” (“Every black male in the park who was in the park last night is a suspect. I need all of them,” her character declares in the first episode). Since its May 31 premiere, the series has prompted heightened scrutiny for the former prosecutor. Last week, Fairstein resigned from Vassar College’s board of trustees and from the boards of several nonprofit groups, including Safe Horizon, an organization that helps victims of violence.
Amid the fallout, Fairstein — who parlayed decades of sex crime prosecution into a second career as a best-selling novelist — told The Daily Beast that DuVernay’s series was “a basket of lies.” Citing support from Dutton, the Penguin Books imprint that published her popular series about a tenacious Manhattan prosecutor, Fairstein brushed off calls to boycott her books.
“My publisher has been fantastic,” she told the site last Monday. But by the end of the week, the collaboration had come to an end. On Friday, Dutton told the Associated Press it had “terminated its relationship” with Fairstein.
Fairstein was not the lead prosecutor in the Central Park jogger case, as it was known then. But her pioneering role in the DA’s office made her a key figure in the investigation. In the years since, she has continued to speak publicly about the case, denying any wrongdoing by her office or detectives. Her characterization of events has prompted criticism that predates “When They See Us.”
She has insisted the teens were guilty of at least some crimes that occurred that April night in Central Park. “It’s completely dishonest not to mention the context of the rest of the night of the attacks,” she told the New Yorker in 2002. “There were at least four other people attacked in the Park that night. Lots of stuff going on.”
Fairstein makes similar assertions in her Wall Street Journal op-ed, which begins:
At about 9 p.m. April 19, 1989, a large group of young men gathered on the corner of 110th Street and Fifth Avenue for the purpose of robbing and beating innocent people in Central Park. There were more than 30 rioters, and the woman known as the “Central Park jogger,” Trisha Meili, was not their only victim. Eight others were attacked, including two men who were beaten so savagely that they required hospitalization for head injuries.
The Central Park Five, who have long maintained their innocence, were convicted of other crimes, including robberies and other assaults, in their 1990 trials. Those convictions were also vacated in 2002 at the recommendation of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, led by Robert M. Morgenthau — the same district attorney who had overseen their prosecutions.
Although a report from Morgenthau’s office that year referenced evidence that the teens had allegedly committed other crimes that night, it concluded, according to the New York Times, “that there is a probability that the new evidence, had it been available to the juries, would have resulted in verdicts more favorable to the defendants, not only on the charges arising from the attack on the female jogger but on the other charges as well.”
In 2014, the men reached a landmark $41 million settlement with the city over their wrongful convictions, though the city never admitted fault.
In her op-ed, Fairstein argues that attempts by journalists and filmmakers to tell the story of the Central Park Five have “missed the larger picture of that terrible night: a riot in the dark that resulted in the apprehension of more than 15 teenagers who set upon multiple victims.” She allows that Reyes’s confession and the DNA evidence that corroborated it “required that the rape charges against the five be vacated.” But, she adds, “the other charges, for crimes against other victims, should not have been vacated.”
“When They See Us” depicts a melee in the park, but the teens are bystanders, looped into a larger group by police and prosecutors. In her 2002 New Yorker interview, Fairstein recalled how authorities interviewed dozens of suspects in what she called “one of the most brilliant police investigations I’ve ever seen.”
“A kid would say something like ‘a dark-skinned guy who lives on 102nd Street,’ ” Fairstein told lawyer Jeffrey Toobin, the author of the New Yorker piece. “And these detectives would go out and find him."
Fairstein takes particular issue with the interrogation scenes in “When They See Us.” Among “the film’s most egregious falsehoods,” Fairstein writes, is the implication that the teens “were “held without food, deprived of their parents’ company and advice, and not even allowed to use the bathroom.”
“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,” she continues. “They didn’t, because it never happened.”
But the claim isn’t a new one. “When we were arrested, the police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours,” Yusef Salaam wrote in a 2016 essay published by The Washington Post. “Under duress, we falsely confessed.”
Fairstein also says the series’ timeline incorrectly places her at the police station before dawn the day after the attack. “I didn’t arrive until 8 p.m., 22 hours after the police investigation began, did not run the investigation, and never made any of the comments the screenwriter attributes to me,” Fairstein writes.
Fairstein argues that “it shouldn’t have been hard for Ms. DuVernay to discover the truth,” noting that “the facts of the original case are documented in a 117-page decision by New York State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Galligan, in sworn testimony given in two trials and affirmed by two appellate courts, and in sworn depositions of more than 95 witnesses — including the five themselves.”
Fairstein’s op-ed does not mention the controversy surrounding Galligan’s selection as judge for the two 1990 trials. As noted in a 1989 New York Times article, Galligan had been assigned to the case, bucking the state’s convention of choosing a judge by lottery. Advocates for the teens criticized the decision: Galligan had a “law-and-order image,” a lawyer for Korey Wise told the Times. “I don’t think anyone has been acquitted in his court in the last two years.”
In “When They See Us,” a lawyer for one of the teens laments that the case has been assigned to “part 59 of the New York State Supreme Court.” He tells the teens and their parents that Galligan usually “sides with the state,” landing convictions at such a rate that Rikers — New York’s infamous correctional facility — is known as “Galligan’s Island.”
The four-episode series focuses heavily on issues within various facets of the criminal justice system; the latter half follows the indignities experienced by the teens during and after their incarcerations. DuVernay, who first explored the Central Park Five case in her 2016 Netflix documentary, “13th,” has said she agreed to tackle the story after one of the five, Raymond Santana Jr., reached out to her on Twitter.
It was on the social media platform that the filmmaker responded to Fairstein, shortly after her op-ed published Monday night. “Expected and typical,” DuVernay wrote as she shared a tweet critical of Fairstein. “Onward.”
Fairstein, meanwhile, ends her op-ed on a defiant note: “Ms. DuVernay does not define me, and her film does not speak the truth.”
But the fallout continues for the former prosecutor. Deadline reported Tuesday that Fairstein had been dropped by her literary agency, the Hollywood-based ICM Partners.