Inside the Controversy About Linda Fairstein, Central Park 5 Prosecutor Played by Felicity Huffman
Linda Fairstein parlayed her many years as head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crime unit into a highly-successful literary career: She is the author of the bestselling Alexandra Cooper series of mystery novels, which follow a heroine New York prosecutor and are based on Fairstein’s real-life experiences.
But to many, her legacy is irredeemably tarnished by one case: Fairstein oversaw the interrogation of the so-called Central Park Five, the teens who were wrongfully imprisoned for years following the high-profile 1989 rape of a female jogger before their convictions were overturned.
All five said their confessions were coerced under extreme duress, and they were later exonerated when a convicted serial rapist whose DNA matched the attack confessed to the crime. The men later reached a settlement with New York City for more than $40 million, The New York Times reported.
Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which starts streaming Friday, chronicles the case and its impact on the five people — all of whom were Black or Latino — whose lives were turned upside down during an era in New York marked by high crime and fraught race relations.
Fairstein is played by Felicity Huffman, who has made off-screen headlines in the courtroom herself because of her involvement in the college admissions cheating scandal, which resulted in a May guilty plea.
Despite no physical evidence tying the five teens to the crime, Fairstein has maintained they were guilty as charged. In 2018, after New York City released thousands of pages of case documents supporting the decision to vacate the convictions, Fairstein wrote an op-ed in the New York Law Journal defending the initial convictions and saying the confessions weren’t coerced. In a 2002 interview with The New Yorker, she described the arrests of the suspects as “one of the most brilliant police investigations I’ve ever seen.”
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Fairstein claimed in the interview that the admitted rapist, Matias Reyes, “ran with that pack of kids. 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, not only in the other attacks that night but in the attack on the jogger.”
But Michael Warren, who represented three of the five wrongfully convicted teens, told the magazine, “Reyes is very clear about what he did. His profile is that of a solo artist, and he acted alone.”
Controversy Over Rescinded Literary Award
Last year, Fairstein’s controversial legacy surfaced when the Mystery Writers of America announced she would receive the 2019 lifetime achievement Grand Master Award at their annual Edgar Awards ceremony.
“Linda Fairstein became a sex-crimes prosecutor during a time when sex crimes were almost impossible to prosecute. In her 30-year tenure at the Manhattan DA’s Office, she was a pioneer in the war against rape, fighting for historic changes to the criminal justice system and for justice on behalf of victims of the most heinous crimes,” the news release announcing the award states.
But two days after the announcement, the organization rescinded the honor, citing “a controversy in which she was involved” about which the organization’s board had previously been unaware.
The initial announcement of the decision to honor Fairstein was quickly criticized by 2018 Edgar winner Attica Locke.
“She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five,” Locke, who according to the New York Times worked on the Netflix project, wrote in a series of tweets.
“Just because she has a flourishing publishing career does not mean we should ignore her past — or her continued unwillingness to accept responsibility for ruining five innocent men’s lives.”
Fairstein responded to Locke by accusing the men of separate assaults that night — even though their convictions on those charges were also vacated.
“Talk to me about the other 6 men viciously attacked in the Park that night, which these and others admit doing. You don’t care about them? Good night,” Fairstein wrote.
Locke responded, “Actually, I think the ‘good night’ here is the sun setting on all the years you’ve gotten away with not being held to account for your actions in the court of public opinion.”
The Netflix miniseries When They See Us starts streaming Friday.