Since her retirement, Linda Fairstein — a former prosecutor for the New York sex crimes unit — has built a career as a mystery author, penning more than 20 mystery novels in the best-selling Alexandra Cooper series, which follows the travails of a hard-boiled New York City prosecutor. Recently, however, she is best known for her role as chief prosecutor in the case involving Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, the young men of color also known as the Central Park Five.
In 1989, the five young men (all of whom were teenagers at time) were wrongly accused of brutally raping a jogger in Central Park, as documented by Ava Duvernay’s gripping four-part Netflix series When They See Us. The Central Park jogger case and their subsequent conviction sparked intense media coverage, much of which fueled racist panic about young black men “wilding” on the streets of New York City. The series portrays in excruciating detail how Fairstein (as portrayed by Felicity Huffman) oversaw the interrogation of the young men, and is portrayed as dismissing law enforcement officials’ doubts about the case and ignoring evidence that pointed to the men’s innocence.
Following the release of When They See Us, Fairstein has faced renewed criticism for her role in the case, becoming the subject of a social media campaign, #CancelLindaFairstein, which called for publishers and booksellers to stop selling her work. Although Fairstein has disputed her portrayal in When They See Us, referring to it as “grossly and maliciously inaccurate” and “a basket of lies,” the campaign has been successful, at least in part: in response to the public pressure, Fairstein has resigned from the boards of her alma mater Vassar College, as well as the board for the anti-domestic violence organization Safe Horizon. On Tuesday, Glamour Magazine, which awarded Fairstein with a Woman of the Year award in 1993, published a letter by editor-in-chief Samantha Barry, saying that the damage caused by Fairstein’s actions was “irrevocable” and that “unequivocally,” the publication would not have bestowed the honor on her today. On Friday, her publisher, Dutton, announced that they would be dropping her, according to the Associated Press.
In light of the renewed discussion of Fairstein and her role in the unjust prosecution of the Central Park Five, here’s a brief summary of who Linda Fairstein is, and why the #CancelLindaFairstein campaign has been so successful.
Who is Linda Fairstein?
A graduate of the law school at the University of Virginia (where she was one of only a handful of women in her class), Fairstein became a superstar in the legal world in the 1976, when she was promoted to the head of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In this position, Fairstein oversaw the prosecution of a number of high-profile accused criminals, including Robert Chambers, the so-called “preppy killer.” But she gained prominence on the national stage when she oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park Five in the case of the brutal attack of jogger Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker who was raped and left for dead in the park. (Meili’s identity was a secret for years, in accordance with state law protecting the identities of rape victims; she came forward in 2003 with the release of her memoir.)
Although there was no physical evidence tying the members of the Central Park Five to the case, as depicted by When They See Us, Fairstein took a gung-ho approach toward the prosecution of the five young men. She oversaw (though did not directly participate in) the aggressive interrogation of the five young men, which took place over the course of two days without lawyers present and led to their false confessions; the series also depicts her trying to explain away evidence that would have exonerated the young men, as well as referring to them as “animals” and steamrolling law enforcement officials who express their doubts.
On the basis of their confessions, the young men were convicted and went to prison for several years. Their sentences were vacated in 2002 when DNA evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt that another man, Matias Reyes, was actually responsible for the crime; they later received a $41 million settlement from the city. (Reyes is currently serving a life sentence in prison on other charges.)
Despite the exoneration of the Central Park Five, however, Fairstein has historically maintained that the police investigation was above board, and she continued to insist on their guilt up until 2002. “I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids,” she told the New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin following Reyes’ confession. “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.” She even penned a 2018 piece for the New York Law Journal doubling down on defending the prosecution’s efforts, a piece that was literally titled “In Defense of the Central Park 5 Prosecution.”
In the New Yorker piece, Fairstein also insisted that there was no wrongdoing on the NYPD’s part over the course of the investigation: “I watched more than thirty detectives — black, white, Hispanic guys who’d never met each other before — conduct a brilliant investigation. 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?”
What is Linda Fairstein doing today?
After 25 years leading the sex crimes unit, Fairstein retired and launched a flourishing career writing her Alexandra Cooper series, featuring a fictional assistant district attorney who prosecutes sex crimes. Many of her books have been on the New York Times bestseller list, and she has also built a reputation as an advocate for domestic violence survivors.
#CancelLindaFairstein, however, is not the first time Fairstein has come under fire for her role prosecuting the Central Park Five. As recently as last year, the organization the Mystery Writers of America rescinded an award for Fairstein after a number of other members of the organization protested, with mystery writer Attica Locke accusing Fairstein of being “almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.” Although Fairstein disputed this characterization, telling Locke her “anger and comments are so misdirected,” the organization withdrew the award nonetheless.
The release of When They See Us, however, has only added fuel to the fire. A Change.org petition to Fairstein’s publishers and retailers calling for them to boycott her books has garnered more than 125,000 signatures, while another petition to prosecute Fairstein has garnered more than 15,000. (Many members of the Central Park Five, such as Raymond Santana, have gone on record as supporting the boycott.) It seemed it has worked, with her publisher, Dutton, confirming to the Associated Press on Friday that it had “terminated its relationship” with the author. The social media uproar has prompted Fairstein to resign from the boards of various organizations, with her issuing a statement to Safe Horizon that “I do not want to become a lightning rod to inflict damage on this organization, because of those now attacking my record of fighting for social justice for more than 45 years.”
Fairstein has also blamed Duvernay publicly for what she views as her unfair and inaccurate portrayal, telling the Daily Beast that the film presented “a totally and completely untrue picture of events and my participation” and that it had misrepresented the timeline and fabricated events such as Fairstein ordering a mass roundup of all “black males” and “thugs” in Harlem.
For her part, DuVernay has previously said that she had reached out to Fairstein during the making of the series. “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,” she told the Daily Beast in a separate interview. But she also acknowledged that law enforcement’s perspective was not the focus of her narrative: “For me, it just came down to the boys — to stay with the boys, because it’s their story.”