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Who is Linda Fairstein? The true story of the Central Park Five lawyer

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The rape of a jogger and the wrongful conviction of a group of teenage boys was the most talked-about crime of the Nineties and has now been turned into an Ava DuVernay miniseries for Netflix called When They See Us. Linda Fairstein was one of the women involved in the case. Now, she has spoken out against the television show. 

The similarities between Linda Fairstein and Alexandra Cooper are startling. Both were leading figures in New York law enforcement and star assistant district attorneys in the sex crimes division. Both had made a name for themselves as ruthless and ambitious legal minds in pursuit of the next big case.

But only one is real. Cooper is Fairstein’s creation, the fictional character who drives the action in her bestselling 20-strong series of murder mysteries. Cooper started writing the books in 1996, six years after she oversaw the team prosecuting the five young men accused of raping a jogger in Central Park – known as the Central Park Five – in April 1989.

The true crime had gripped New York, dominating media coverage and kickstarting an investigation into how safe Central Park really was. It was a cipher for all of the fears of the city: were women safe? Were runners safe? Was anyone who happened into the park late at night safe? 

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When They See Us: true story of Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five drama

The irony of the thing is that they were – safe, that is. In terms of per capita presence, Central Park is the most policed area in New York, given that it has a precinct all of its own and no fixed population to monitor. 

And yet after Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old financial analyst from the Upper East Side went running in Central Park just after nine in the evening and was brutally raped in a woody section known as ‘The Loch’, nobody thought that the park was safe. “We are all scared,” a New Yorker named Maria Venturo wrote to The New York Times at the time. “It is all we can be”.

Police investigate in Central Park

The attack was over in approximately 20 minutes, at which point Meili was abandoned, in the shadows of the close vegetation that characterises that area of the park, until two construction workers discovered her more than four hours later and alerted police.

That same evening, police apprehended Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise between Central Park and 102nd Street. The boys were friends and they had been in the park that evening. They were all between 14 and 16 years old. They were all men of colour.

This is the story being told in Ava Duvernay’s new Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a five-episode television drama investigating the wrongful conviction of the teenagers who became known as the Central Park Five, and the slow march towards justice. In the miniseries, the role of Linda Fairstein will be played by Felicity Huffman, herself no stranger to the law these days after being charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in the college admissions scandal. 

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In When They See Us, Fairstein (Huffman) is depicted as being convinced of the boys’ guilt, even without any evidence to corroborate it. “All this is happening in the park… and it’s not connected?” she says. “They’re not witnesses. They’re suspects.”

Since the series debuted on Netflix on 31 May, a change.org petition calling for publishers and bookstores to boycott Fairstein’s novels and the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein has sprung up. The author has since deleted her social media accounts. Santana, one of the boys wrongfully convicted of rape, supports the boycott. “The truth comes out,” Santana said, of the backlash against Fairstein. “Even if it’s 30 years later, she has to pay for her crime.”

Felicity Huffman walks into court during the college admissions scandal.
Felicity Huffman walks into court during the college admissions scandal.

At the time of the Central Park Five rape, Fairstein was the head of Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit. Originally, her direct superior Nancy Ryan – assistant district attorney for homicide cases – laid claim to the trial, arguing that the victim was likely to die and the case would therefore become a murder. But after a bit of territorial in-fighting, Fairstein secured the case and her team set about preparing their evidence.

There was no blood, hair or other DNA evidence tying the five boys to the jogger. But what Fairstein and her team did have were taped confessions from each of the boys, secured during an arduous interrogation process that lasted, in one instance, for 30 gruelling hours.

These confessions were erratic, to say the least. None of the their testimony corroborated each other, and they all had wildly differing accounts of what had happened in the park that night. Some of them allege that their testimony was elicited without an adult present. Salaam has always maintained that it was Fairstein who barred his aunt and his mentor David Nocenti – himself a lawyer – from seeing him during the interrogation process. At the time, he was only 15 years old. 

Fairstein, at left, walking into the trial

“They really wanted us to leave so they could complete their process,” Salaam’s aunt Sharonne has said. “At one point, I was hyperventilating and I asked for water and Fairstein said there was just no water in the building. It was very strange.”

These taped confessions, then believed to be watertight, helped secure the conviction of each of the five teenagers in 1990.

They didn’t do it, though. In 2001, a convicted serial rapist by the name of Matias Reyes met Wise when they were both moved to the same prison facility. After being imprisoned, Reyes had found religion and wanted to atone for his crimes. Reyes admitted that it was he who had raped Meili, and that he was the only person responsible for the attack. DNA corroborated his confession.

“A lot of people have asked, ‘Why didn’t you say something back then?’” Reyes has said. “I don’t know… I wanted so bad to approach him and to speak to him and tell him that it was me that did the crime he’s in jail for, that if he could forgive me.” 

Linda Fairstein

On 19 December 2002 the convictions of all five of the young men were vacated. Wise had served 13 years behind bars, and the other four men seven years each. Today, they are free.

Fairstein has always maintained that the Central Park Five were guilty of the crime. 

In a new opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Fairstein has alleged that DuVernay’s When They See Us defames her and is a false representation of the crimes. In the article, Fairstein writes that there was evidence that the boys were in the park that night committing other crimes and that the series does not represent the full story of their behaviour. 

“There was certainly more than enough evidence to support these convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot and other charges,” Fairstein writes. “It is a  wonderful thing that these five men have taken themselves to responsible positions and community respect. That Ms DuVernay ignored so much of the truth about the gang of 30 and about the suffering of their victims, and that her film includes so many falsehoods, is nonetheless an outrage. Ms DuVernay does not define me, and her film does not speak the truth.” 

Ava DuVernay with members of the Exonerated Five.

In earlier interviews around the time of the Central Park Five’s release in the early Noughties, Fairstein put forth her view of the events of that night.

“I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids,” she said 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, not only in the other attacks that night but in the attack on the jogger… Remember, I had a lot of cases with comatose victims. They wake up, more often than not. What’s the likelihood that a sophisticated group of cops and prosecutors are going to make up a story that she can refute when she wakes up?”

She also stressed to the New York Law Journal in 2018 that there was nothing wrong with the confessions that her team had elicited from the teenagers back in 1989. “The videotapes show that the questioning [of the Central Park Five] was respectful, dignified, carried out according to the letter of the law and with sensitivity to the young age of the men… If you spot the first sign of a coercive question, don’t hesitate to write to me and point out.” 

Who is Linda Fairstein? The Manhattan lawyer involved in the Central Park Five case 

Today, Fairstein spends her time writing mystery novels, though she was briefly linked to the Harvey Weinstein allegations. (“Linda Fairstein… was willing to facilitate introductions to the current sex crimes prosecutor who was handling the case,” Megan Twohey, one of the New York Times investigative reporters who worked on the Weinstein story, told NPR. “And within weeks that case was dead.”)

In late 2018, when the Mystery Writers of America were hoping to award Fairstein with their Grand Master award, backlash from within the organisation led to them rescinding the honour. Nevertheless, Fairstein said: “I thank MWA for the initial honor and for the joy it inspired, which can never be revoked, and I am happy to enthusiastically support the new Grand Master.”

Fairstein figures heavily in Duvernay’s When They See Us. The director told Daily Beast that she reached out to the key figures in the story for their involvement, and Fairstein wanted to have script approval.

“I informed them that I was making the film, that they would be included, and invited them to sit with me and talk with me so that they could share their point of view and their side of things so that I could have that information as I wrote the script with my co-writers,” DuVernay said. “Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate. 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.” 

In the first trailer for When They See Us, Fairstein is heard in voice over: “Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect. I need all of them… All we need is one to tie this whole thing together.” 

When They See Us streams on Netflix now. 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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