Long before the Central Park Five became synonymous with a miscarriage of justice–a worst-case example of violence perpetrated by the legal system–a judge specifically referenced the actions of the woman who led the case’s prosecution, Linda Fairstein, in its result. The five boys, between 14 and 16 years old at the time, had been convicted of several rapes in Central Park with little evidence beyond a series of confessions, elicited after hours of interrogation. (The boys weren’t exonerated until almost a decade later when, in 2002, another man confessed to the crime.) On December 16, 1993, denying the appeal of one of the five, Yusef Salaam, New York Court of Appeals Judge Vito Titone wrote that the case’s interrogation methods were exploitive by design: “There can have been no other reason for [Farstein’s] decisions [...] other than to capitalize on his youth and isolation.”
Nearly two decades later, Ava DuVernay ’s When They See Us called attention to Fairstein’s involvement in the case, alleging she actively engineered the prosecution of the Central Park Five. In 2018, a year prior to the Netflix series release, Fairstein would deny this claim in a letter to the New York Law Journal, writing that the Central Park Five’s questioning was “respectful, dignified, and carried out according to the letter of the law.” But Fairstein’s role in the case has been long publicized, with Titone making a similar argument to DuVernay, writing that Fairstein and the police sought to “obtain the evidence they wanted before permitting the defendant to speak with an adult who might interfere with the investigators’ absolute control over his person and environment.”
Less than a year since the release of When They See Us, Fairstein is suing Netflix, director DuVernay, and cowriter Attica Locke, Variety now reports. In a court filing alongside the suit, Fairstein’s lawyers write, “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.”
Her lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, also said in a statement that Fairstein was neither in charge of the “investigation [or] prosecution of the case against The Five, including the development of the prosecution’s theory of the case.” Consider how high profile the case was in 1989, and that Fairstein ran the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit at the time.
“As falsely portrayed in the film series, and fully detailed below, Ms. Fairstein singlehandedly masterminds a theory of the case against the children by, among other things: unlawfully interrogating unaccompanied minors; calling for a roundup of “young, black” “thugs;” manipulating a timeline of events to pin the rape of the Central Park jogger on The Five; referring to people of color as “animals;” directing NYPD detectives to coerce confessions from unaccompanied minors who are beaten while in custody; suppressing DNA evidence; and forcing her colleague to prosecute a meritless case against The Five. In fact, Ms. Fairstein took none of these actions.”
In filings, the lawyers also argue that the film series was “deliberately calculated to create one, clear, and unmistakable villain to be targeted for hatred and vilification,” misrepresenting her as the lead prosecutor when, in fact, she handed off the responsibilities to a subordinate. (Both statements, again, appear to downplay her position as the head of the Sex Crimes Unit.)
In response, representatives for Netflix informed Variety the streaming giant would “vigorously defend” the suit. They continued: “Linda Fairstein’s frivolous lawsuit is without merit. We intend to vigorously defend ‘When They See Us’ and Ava DuVernay and Attica Locke, the incredible team behind the series.” Lawyers of DuVernay and her production company, Forward Movement, did not immediately respond to Jezebel’s requests for comment. This story will be updated when they do.