- Former prosecutor Linda Fairstein oversaw the interrogation and trial of the "Central Park Five," as depicted in Netflix series When They See Us.
- In the wake of the series, she's become the subject of great backlash.
- Now, New York City officials are calling for the current Manhattan District Attorney to reopen and review Linda's past cases.
Thirty years might have passed since Linda Fairstein led the prosecution in the Central Park Jogger case, but the 1989 investigation and 1990 trials - and her role in them - have officially come back into the limelight with the release of Netflix's new miniseries When They See Us.
The Ava Duvernay-created series tells the story of the so-called "Central Park Five," the five black and Latino boys who were wrongfully incarcerated for the rape and assault of the Central Park Jogger. Linda is played by Felicity Huffman in the series and, as the woman who supervised the interrogation and trial of the five boys, she's portrayed in a less-than-glamorous light.
This massive resurgence of the Central Park Five's story - and Linda's continued unwillingness to issue an apology to the five exonerated men today - have ignited a new fury in viewers of When They See Us, who started a #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag on social media and a petition to end the production and sale of her crime novels. New York City officials have even requested that current Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance reopen and review all of the cases she once prosecuted, though that request has been denied.
Here, we take a look back at Linda Fairstein's legal career, books, and what led up to this backlash today.
Linda Fairstein's Legal Career
In 1972, Linda was hired as an assistant district attorney at the Manhattan D.A.'s office. In 1976, she was promoted to head of the office's sex crimes unit - a position she would hold until leaving the D.A.'s office 26 years later.
While heading up the sex crimes unit, Linda prosecuted a number of controversial (and widely publicized) cases in Manhattan, including the so-called "Preppie Murder" case in 1986 and the later-overturned People vs. Jovanovic case in 1998. But arguably, any infamy attached to Linda's other cases pales in comparison to that of the Central Park Jogger case.
The Central Park Jogger Case
On the night of April 19, 1989, the body of a 28-year-old female jogger was discovered in a ravine in Central Park. The "Central Park Jogger," as she would become known, had been brutally beaten, raped, and left for dead.
The jogger, who we now know was Trisha Meili, would ultimately survive her attack, but the city of New York was hungry for justice to be served. And under the supervision of Linda, five black teen boys - Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson - were interrogated until they confessed to the crime.
The Central Park Five, as the boys became known, later went back on their confessions, saying they had been coerced into giving false statements. Still, they were found guilty in their 1990 trials and went on to serve years-long sentences in prison. It wasn't until 2002 that Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist who was serving a life sentence for a different crime, confessed to being the actual perpetrator of the Central Park Jogger rape. DNA evidence backed up his confession, and the Central Park Five were exonerated.
In 2003, three of the five wrongly accused men (Antron, Raymond, and Kevin) sued the city of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. Eleven years later, after Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, they received a total settlement of $41 million - but Linda continued to defend the initial outcome of the trials.
"I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids," Linda said to The New Yorker in 2002. "He stayed longer when the others moved on. He completed the assault. I don't think there is a question in the minds of anyone present during the interrogation process that these five men were participants ... I watched more than 30 detectives - black, white, Hispanic guys who'd never met each other before - conduct a brilliant investigation."
Becoming a Crime Novelist
In 1996, while the majority of the Central Park Five were still in prison, Linda began a second career as an author of crime novels. She was still working at the Manhattan D.A.'s office when she published her first novel, Final Jeopardy, which follows fictional New York prosecutor Alexandra Cooper.
Linda reportedly drew on her own knowledge of sex crime prosecution for the novel, and quickly turned Alexandra's fictional investigations into a best-selling series. By 2002, she had left her job at the D.A.'s office to pursue her career as an author full-time.
Where Linda Fairstein Is Today
Since leaving her position at the Manhattan D.A.'s office 17 years ago, Linda has continued to write new installments of the Alexandra Cooper series (there are 20 to date, with the most recent book having been released earlier this year), as well as some children's mystery books. She's also served as a "sex crimes expert" for various media outlets during high-profile trials. But then, When They See Us premiered.
While writing the script for the Netflix series, creator Ava Duvernay reportedly reached out to Linda and found that the former prosecutor wanted to be more involved than she was comfortable with.
"Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate," Ava told The Daily Beast. "She tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with me, including approvals over the script and some other things. So you know what my answer was to that, and we didn't talk."
Following the release of the series - and the resulting outpouring of anger toward her - Linda has deleted her social media accounts. She has also resigned from her position on the board of trustees at Vassar College, her alma mater, and her positions on the boards of sex crime victim advocacy groups Safe Horizon and the Joyful Heart Foundation. More recently, Linda was dropped by both her book publisher and her literary agency.
On June 10, Linda published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal defending her reputation and criticizing her portrayal in the new Netflix miniseries. Titled "Netflix's False Story of the Central Park Five," her op-ed claims that the retelling of the Central Park Jogger case in When They See Us is "so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication" and claims the series "defames" her.
Director Ava, meanwhile, responded with a simple tweet:
Linda's most recent statements reflect her continued defense of how she handled the Central Park Jogger case - to this day, she still has not apologized for her involvement in the wrongful incarceration of Korey, Yusef, Antron, Raymond, and Kevin. Instead, Linda has maintained that the boys' interrogations were "respectful, dignified, [and] carried out according to the letter of the law and with sensitivity to the young age of the men."
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