Former prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s not happy with her portrayal in Ava DuVernay’s Central Park 5 Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, and this week she wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal decrying it as “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.” The actual facts, meanwhile, do not work out in her favor.
“Ms. DuVernay’s film attempts to portray me as an overzealous prosecutor and a bigot, the police as incompetent or worse, and the five suspects as innocent of all charges against them,” Fairstein wrote for the WSJ, calling the mini-series “a series so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.” Fairstein goes on to detail some of DuVernay’s so-called “falsehoods,” though the New York Times helpfully debunked some of her assertions:
In what she called “the film’s most egregious falsehoods,” she noted that the series depicts the teenagers as being held without food and their parents as not always being present during questioning. “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,” Ms. Fairstein wrote. “They didn’t, because it never happened.”
In fact, according to a 2003 report on the investigation commissioned by the New York Police Department, the defendants did raise these issues in a pretrial hearing, though they did not prevail.
Ms. Fairstein wrote that she agreed with the decision to vacate the rape charges, but that other convictions against the five for lesser crimes should not have been overturned. She said that there was testimony to back up the accusations that the boys had been part of a group of more than 30 teenagers who were in Central Park that night, some of whom assaulted and robbed people.
The strength of those charges has been in dispute. The district attorney’s office, in a 2002 report examining whether the convictions should be overturned, argued that the lesser crimes had been presented to the jury as part of a pattern of behavior, a pattern that included the rape. The report also said the evidence against the five teenagers for the other attacks “consisted almost entirely of the defendants’ statements” — the same problematic statements in which they confessed to a rape committed by somebody else.
But the Police Department report said that there was “no new evidence or reason to review the old evidence regarding those crimes” and noted that two of the men had admitted their involvement in those crimes during parole hearings.
Fairstein’s involvement in the trial as the then-head of the Manhattan sex crimes unit resulted in five teenage boys being wrongly convicted and imprisoned for over a decade, and When They See Us suggests Fairstein achieved those convictions by racially profiling and coercing confessions from the teenagers. Though When They See Us is a dramatization of the case, this is not the first time the prosecution’s been under scrutiny. In 2002 the Manhattan district attorney’s office filed a report recommending the convictions against the Central Park 5 be overturned in part because of problems with the prosecution’s case, and Ken Burns dug into Fairstein’s troubling role in the trial in his 2013 documentary, The Central Park Five.
The response to When They See Us, though, has been explosive, and Fairstein’s portrayal (she’s played by Felicity Huffman in the series) has prompted calls for a boycott. Fairstein has enjoyed a lucrative gig as a crime novelist post-DA’s office, but her publisher dropped her when the series aired; she has also resigned from her position on the board of victim advocacy group Safe Horizon, after staffers complained.
And though DuVernay (who is not particularly perturbed by Fairstein’s response) may have taken a few minor artistic liberties with her depiction of Fairstein, Jonathan C. Moore, who represented four of the five wrongfully convicted men in a $41 million suit settled with New York City in 2014, says it “captures the essence of who she was.”
“At no point did the police or prosecution stop and say, these are young kids, like in the eighth grade,” he told the New York Times. “Do we really believe they’re really capable of committing this kind of crime?”
The five men spent much of their young lives behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Fairstein, meanwhile, is suffering some minor public humiliation and professional setback for helping take those years from them. She would do better to apologize and say she’s learned from her mistakes. She won’t.