With the exception of Mary Queen of Scots, probably no woman has risen as high and fallen so far as Linda Fairstein, the one-time sex-crimes prosecutor now accused of railroading the convictions of five teenagers for a rape they did not commit. Fairstein has lost her book contract, her seats on various boards and, it seems fair to say, her good name. Mary, on the other hand, merely lost her head.
For years, Fairstein was renowned for being the New York City prosecutor whose sex-crimes unit not only spawned a hit TV show but gave sex crimes the prominence they deserve. She garnered numerous honors and, after she retired, wrote several best-selling novels grounded in her long career as a prosecutor. She had plenty of reasons to feel good about herself.
Then came Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix series, “When They See Us,” about the prosecution of five black and Hispanic youths for the rape and bludgeoning of Trisha Meili, a white investment banker. The year was 1989, New York was in the throes of a crime wave and it seemed that the youths who came to be called the Central Park Five personified the mindlessness, randomness and viciousness of crime in that era. Donald Trump certainly thought so. He took out full-page newspaper ads strongly suggesting that the five youths deserved to be executed. It was Trump’s first contribution to civic life.
Some facts: in 2002, a serial rapist and killer named Matias Reyes not only confessed to the Central Park rape but said he acted alone. His DNA matched that taken from the victim, but it was always known — and the jury was told — that none of the five suspects were themselves a match. This did not mean, the prosecution maintained, that they were not at the scene and had not taken part in violent mayhem elsewhere that evening. Several other people were physically assaulted, one of whom, a male jogger, needed to be hospitalized. He was beaten with a pipe, branches and bricks.
In DuVernay’s telling, the five were wrongly and maliciously prosecuted by Fairstein who, as Fairstein herself put it in a Wall Street Journal column, was characterized as an “overzealous prosecutor and a bigot.” If that was DuVernay’s intent, she succeeded and Fairstein roils in ignominy. Her publisher, Dutton, dropped her like the proverbial hot potato, giving new meaning to the term “yellow press.”
Trouble is, others feel it is not the Central Park Five who got railroaded, but Fairstein. After Reyes surfaced, the police commissioner at the time, Raymond Kelly, had a panel of experts look into the police handling of the case. Its chairman was Michael F. Armstrong, an attorney who in the early 1970s was the chief counsel to a commission investigating police corruption. He is no police patsy. He and his colleagues found no misconduct.
Armstrong feels even stronger about his findings today, as he recounted to me in a recent conversation. And in a letter he wrote to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough after the Morning Joe show recently had discussed the Central Park Five case: “In fact, the police and prosecutors behaved properly and professionally.”
DuVernay is a fine director, but not a journalist or historian. Her movie “Selma” maligned Lyndon Johnson, eliciting howls from some historians and a strong protest from Joseph Califano, a former Johnson White House aide. In “When They See Us,” she takes similar license with the facts, some of them material, some of them not. For instance, Fairstein is shown supervising the questioning of the youths from the first hour. Actually, she wasn’t on the scene for the first two days.
Inevitably, this controversy is about race — five teenagers of color vs. a white criminal justice system. The formulation has in recent years become enormously powerful and clearly accounts for why Fairstein has been so pilloried. After all, Reyes confessed in 2002 and the verdict against the Central Park Five was vacated the same year. By then the Five had all served long prison sentences — about seven to 13 years. Mayor Bill de Blasio, authorized a payment of $40 million to settle a lawsuit.
There was mayhem in Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989, when more than 30 teenagers went “wilding” — and the mayhem continues. But now a different sort of mob is on the loose, pillaging Linda Fairstein’s reputation. In a movie, she’s guilty. In real life, she’s not.
Cohen writes for the Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.