Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Linda Fairstein says the director’s Netflix miniseries is “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.”
Linda Fairstein, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office prosecutor who took the lead in the controversial Central Park Five case, is speaking out against Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, claiming the Netflix miniseries based on the 1989 case omits crucial details and defames her.
Writing in the WSJ, Fairstein, who is portrayed onscreen by Felicity Huffman in When They See Us, says the four-part limited series omits a riot of more than 30-people that took place on April 19, 1989, the date of the attack on the “Central Park jogger” Trisha Meili. Fairstein contends that reporters and filmmakers like DuVernay have only ever focused on the five accused teenagers, four African-American and one Hispanic, and the one victim and have missed “the larger picture of that terrible night: a riot in the dark that resulted in the apprehension of more than 15 teenagers who set upon multiple victims.” She adds that on that night “eight others were attacked, including two men who were beaten so savagely that they required hospitalization for head injuries,” and claims there is compelling evidence that the five were involved in the riot.
Since the release of When They See Us, there has been renewed scrutiny of the Central Park Five case and Fairstein’s role in it, not least because of the involvement of Donald Trump, who at the time took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty for the five accused.
In the last few weeks, Fairstein has come in for fierce criticism, particularly on social media, where the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein began to trend. As a result of the backlash, Fairstein resigned from the boards of Vassar College, God’s Love We Deliver and the Joyful Heart Foundation. After leaving the Manhattan DA’s office, Fairstein has worked as a novelist and children’s book author, and just days ago, her publisher, Dutton, told the Associated Press that it had dropped her from its roster.
In her WSJ piece, Fairstein claims that because the rape and assault convictions against the five—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam —were vacated in 2002 after Mathias Reyes, a convicted serial rapist and murderer, confessed to the crime and DNA testing confirmed his presence at the scene, has “led some of these reporters and filmmakers to assume the prosecution had no basis on which to charge the five suspects in 1989.” Fairstein agrees that with Reyes’ confession the convictions against the five were right to be vacated but that didn’t exonerate them of other crimes committed that night during the riot. “The other charges, for crimes against other victims, should not have been vacated. Nothing Mr. Reyes said exonerated these five of those attacks. And there was certainly more than enough evidence to support those convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot and other charges,” she writes.
Describing When They See Us as “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication,” Fairstein outlines in the WSJ what she claims are the “most egregious falsehoods.” “When They See Us, repeatedly portrays the suspects as being held without food, deprived of their parents’ company and advice, and not even allowed to use the bathroom. If that had been true, surely they would have brought those issues up and prevailed in pretrial hearings on the voluntariness of their statements, as well as in their lawsuit against the city. They didn’t, because it never happened,” she writes.
She believes DuVernay portrays her as an “prosecutor and a bigot, the police as incompetent or worse, and the five suspects as innocent of all charges against them” and claims that “none of this is true.”
Fairstein concludes by saying that “it is a wonderful thing that these five men have taken themselves to responsible positions and community respect,” but reiterated that DuVernay “ignored so much of the truth about the gang of 30 and about the suffering of their victims” and described that as an “outrage.”
On Monday, DuVernay addressed the backlash faced by Fairstein at Netflix’s final For Your Consideration Emmy event in Los Angeles that was hosted by Oprah Winfrey. At the event DuVernay was asked about an interview Fairstein did with The Daily Beast in which the latter called When They See Us “a basket of lies,” as well as questions about the backlash the former prosecutor has faced.
“I think that it’s important that people be held accountable,” explained DuVernay. “And that accountability is happening in a way today that it did not happen for the real men 30 years ago. But I think that it would be a tragedy if this story and the telling of it came down to one woman being punished for what she did because it’s not about her. It’s not all about her.”
DuVernay added: “[Fairstein] is part of a system that’s not broken, it was built to be this way. It was built to oppress, it was built to control, it was built to shape our culture in a specific way that kept some people here and some people here. It was built for profit. It was built for political gain and power. And it is incumbent on us; it lives off us, our taxpayer dollars, our votes, the goods that we buy that are made inside of prisons. It lives off of our ignorance and we can no longer be ignorant. OK, Linda Fairstein. OK, Elizabeth Lederer. OK, all of these people on this particular case who need to be held accountable.”