Every story needs a villain, and in Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five series, When They See Us (which recently debuted on Netflix), former New York prosecutor Linda Fairstein emerges as the central instrument of evil, an embodiment of systemic racism.
Played by Felicity Huffman, ironically during her own least sympathetic moment, Fairstein is depicted leading a tunnel-visioned conquest to convict five innocent black boys for the rape of a white woman during her moonlit jog. Huffman’s Fairstein rejects out of hand any evidence that doesn’t support her theory, like Donald Rumsfeld ignoring any evidence that contradicted his case for invading Iraq. Watching the limited series with the benefit of hindsight is an infuriating experience. The boys’ false confessions were coerced, the timeline had obscene holes in it, the slang phrase “wilding” in no way translates to “raping,” and the initial wrongful conviction gave the real attacker time and freedom to brutally attack more women. Whether Huffman’s Fairstein comes off as perhaps a bit too eager to put these boys away in this series seems beside the point. She did put them away.
In the eyes of the real Linda Fairstein, however, this unflattering portrayal is the series’ great injustice.
Fairstein’s decades-long tenure as the head of sex crimes in the Manhattan DA’s office abruptly ended in 2002, when all five convictions in the Central Park Jogger case were vacated. (Convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the crimes amid matching DNA evidence.) In 2003, the Central Park Five sued the City of New York, claiming that Fairstein had helped engineer false confessions from the boys, who were between the ages of 14-16 at the time, after 30 straight hours of interrogation. Although the group eventually won their lawsuit (in 2014, for $41M), Fairstein never apologized for her role in their conviction. Instead, she transitioned into a new role: acclaimed author of a mystery novel series featuring plucky New York prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. Somehow, she had mostly escaped a public drubbing over the Central Park Jogger case. Until now, that is.
Even before the series aired, awareness of Fairstein’s past had begun creeping into focus. The Mystery Writers of America rescinded a recent literary achievement award back in November after members of the organization complained. The release of When They See Us on May 31 then set off a wave of ferocious backlash—the kind that had failed to reach critical mass following documentaries like Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five in 2012. The hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein quickly picked up steam on Twitter, followed by more real-life consequences. Fairstein was pressured to resign from the Vassar College board and Safe Horizons, a New York-based nonprofit that helps victims of abuse in the city. Finally, the publishing imprint Dutton dropped her from its roster.
Have any of these consequences, or the years since the wrongful conviction that inspired them, guided Linda Fairstein’s thinking around the Central Park Jogger case? Apparently not.
According to a self-penned op-ed published Tuesday morning in the Wall Street Journal, Fairstein thinks that DuVernay’s portrayal of events unfairly vilifies her and lets the Central Park Five off the hook. The embattled mystery writer maintains her creaky position that the (30-hour) interrogation of the 15-year old boys was completely by the book, despite clearly bogus results. As Fairstein would have it it, Matias Reyes may have committed the actual rape but “the five were charged as accomplices, as persons ‘acting in concert’ with each other and with the then-unknown man who raped the jogger, not as those who actually performed the act.” Meaning they might have theoretically contributed to the attack in spirit?
Fairstein’s “no angel”-style smearing of the wrongfully convicted boys treats their innocence of the actual crime as an inconvenient barrier in convicting them for some hypothetical secondary crime. And the only reason she appears so insistent on their guilt of some crime—any crime—is to make it less embarrassing for her to have been so fixated on the group in the first place. This unenlightened thinking around what should have been an inflection point in Fairstein’s life regarding racism and confirmation bias parallels Huffman’s unflattering portrayal of her as a prosecutor clinging to her own assured position. Besides, if Fairstein wanted a say in how she was depicted, perhaps she shouldn’t have refused to speak to Ava DuVernay and her team unless she had final say over the script. (An offer that was summarily rebuffed.)
By not gracefully accepting or apologizing for her past mistakes, the real Linda Fairstein has only managed to make her “defaming” portrayal in When They See Us seem more believable.