Sarah Weinman is the author of “The Real Lolita.”
The month of June has not been kind to Linda Fairstein, the former head of the sex-crimes division of the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Since Ava DuVernay’s limited Netflix series “When They See Us” debuted on May 31, the prosecutor-turned-bestselling crime writer has been under fire for her role in shaping the prosecution of the group of wrongfully convicted teens who became known as the Central Park Five. (I know Fairstein slightly through the world of crime writing.) Dutton, her longtime book publisher, and ICM Partners, her longtime agency, both dropped her, and social media campaigns spurred her to resign from the boards of the victims’ resource group Safe Horizon and Vassar College.
Fairstein’s fall is the result of a long-overdue public reckoning with New York’s response to the 1989 rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, the crime for which the Five were wrongly imprisoned. In measuring the cost of that case, it isn’t simply that Fairstein played a role in pursuing the wrong suspects. It’s that, as I wrote earlier this month, other women were assaulted, raped, and in one instance, murdered by Matias Reyes, the man solely responsible for the attack on Meili. The New York Police Department and the prosecutor’s office failed these women, some of whom were attacked after Meili, because they believed, incorrectly, that Meili was just one victim of a crime wave taking place in Central Park that night.
Our reckoning also needs to go beyond the Central Park jogger case. Fairstein joined an unjust system in the 1970s and, at first, she helped revolutionize certain aspects of that system. But, as our ideas about the criminal-justice system evolved, hers did not. Neither the excoriating op-ed Fairstein wrote in her own defense, nor Felicity Huffman’s villainous portrayal of her in “When They See Us” captures the full arc of what happened to Fairstein — and why it matters for the rest of us.
Fairstein began her career in public service on the cusp of a major change in thinking about sex crimes. In 1972, the same year Fairstein joined the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the state of New York finally changed a long-standing law that required sexual-assault victims to have at least one witness who could corroborate the identity of the assailant; in 1974, the state also dropped the requirement that another witness corroborate the nature of the attack. In 1971, 2,415 rapes were reported to the city, leading to a single felony rape conviction. Sexual assault among acquaintances and loved ones was hardly considered to be rape, let alone a criminal offense to prosecute.
As Fairstein told a reporter in 1990, for a profile with the headline “Linda Fairstein vs. Rape”: “If someone walked out of my office and had her purse stolen and then was raped by the assailant,” her testimony would be enough to convict him of stealing her purse, but not of the more serious crime committed against her. It would take until 1975 to pass New York’s so-called rape shield law, barring defendants from bringing up a woman’s sexual history as evidence in a rape trial involving a stranger. It took even longer to establish that it was improper to invoke prior consensual sex between a suspect and a victim as a defense against rape. Marital rape wasn’t considered to be a crime in all 50 states until 1993.
Sexual assault wasn’t taken seriously as a crime by the law itself. Many cops and prosecutors had attitudes that were cavalier and victim-blaming at best, and outright grotesque at worst. Thanks to the work of Fairstein and other sex-crimes-focused prosecutors and police officers, those attitudes began to change. Slowly, if stubbornly, the holdouts began to understand that victims should not be blamed for their behavior; that there is no such thing as a “typical” rape victim; and that anyone can be a rapist, not merely a random, violent stranger.
These insights were critically important. But Fairstein’s pursuit of justice for victims of sexual assault didn’t take into account newer developments in how we understand the criminal-justice system to work — or not work. The idea that eyewitness testimony is the “gold standard” has been disproved with every exoneration as a result of DNA evidence. The emphasis on confessions has had to take into account that confessions can be coerced — and that inconsistencies, such as the ones in the Central Park Five’s varying accounts of the evening, really do matter. And the recognition that black and brown men and boys are disproportionately funneled into the prison system made it vital that we measure justice in more holistic terms.
By the time Trisha Meili was attacked in 1989, Fairstein had long been focused on making it possible to prosecute the kind of violent, unwitnessed rapes by strangers that had so long eluded conviction. In April 1974, she told the Los Angeles Times, “We see the case of the girl dragged into the park by four young men and raped.” In her pursuit of justice for Meili, Fairstein didn’t seem to recognize that she herself, and other prosecutors such as her, could commit other injustices along the way.
As Rolling Stone columnist Jamil Smith rightly pointed out, there are Linda Fairsteins in every city. Canceling Fairstein herself may be emotionally satisfying. But it doesn’t account for the very real change she helped bring about. And without concerted effort and work, it won’t prevent other prosecutors from making the same terrible decisions that inflicted such a dreadful cost on the Central Park Five and on Matias Reyes’s other victims.