Former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein has filed a lawsuit against Netflix and Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay, claiming she was defamed by a false portrayal of her as a “racist, unethical villain” in DuVernay’s widely seen documentary about the Central Park Five case.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Fort Myers, Fla., came after the documentary series, When They See Us, made Fairstein the object of public outrage. Lawyers for Netflix immediately called the suit “frivolous” and “without merit.”
The series tells the story of five teenagers wrongly convicted of rape in 1989, who became known as the Central Park Five. Fairstein was head of the Manhattan DA’s sex crimes division at the time.
Before the four-part series aired last year on Netflix, Fairstein had already moved on from the district attorney’s office to build a successful career as a mystery novelist. She was chosen as the 2018 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), a significant honor.
The MWA withdrew the award, and Fairstein claims her career and her reputation nose-dived as a result of the documentary. She was dropped by her publisher, and she was pressured to resign from several boards.
In the suit, Fairstein claims she was defamed in nearly every scene in the three episodes in which her character appears.
“Most glaringly, the film series falsely portrays Ms. Fairstein as in charge of the investigation and prosecution of the case against The Five, including the development of the prosecution’s theory of the case,” Andrew Miltenberg, a lawyer for Ms. Fairstein, told The New York Times.
“In truth, and as detailed in the lawsuit, Ms. Fairstein was responsible for neither aspect of the case.”
In the complaint, Fairstein says: “The film series’ portrayal of Ms. Fairstein cannot be justified as the mere use of artistic license or dramatization. In the film series, which Defendants have marketed and promoted as a true story, Defendants depict Ms. Fairstein—using her true name—as a racist, unethical villain who is determined to jail innocent children of color at any cost.”
DuVernay declined comment on the lawsuit. Attica Locke, a writer and producer of the series, who was also named as a defendant, has not publicly responded.
A social media campaign brought negative attention to Fairstein, charging her with chief responsibility for injustice done to the accused young men. Locke tweeted on the day of the announcement of Fairstein being honored:
As a member and 2018 Edgar winner, I am begging you to reconsider having Linda Fairstein serve as a Grand Master in next year’s awards ceremony. She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.
For which she has never apologized or recanted her insistence on their guilt for the most heinous of crimes, ‘guilt’ based solely on evidence procured through violence and ill treatment of children in lock up. Even after all five (now) men have been exonerated by the state of NY, and other members of the NYC District Attorney’s Office have admitted prosecutorial misconduct on the part of those handling the case in their office.
Anger toward Fairstein stems in part from a story she wrote last year for the New York Law Journal headlined: “In Defense of the Central Park 5 Prosecution.”
In it, she said that the narrative of the five men being pressured into false confession is not true.
Fairstein wrote: “The confessions were not coerced. There were weeks of a Huntley hearing in which the voluntariness of the statements was explored, and in a 160-page opinion by Judge Galligan, all were ruled admissible. Now, for the first time, every reader of this paper can watch the videos online, on the city’s website.”
The Manhattan district attorney agreed to vacate the Central Park Five convictions in 2002 after DNA evidence pointed to another man, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist. He knocked the woman on the head with a branch and viciously assaulted her in the park.
The five young men — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Kharey Wise — later received a settlement from the city totaling nearly $45 million.
Additional Reading: Mystery Writers’ Furor Revives Debate Over Central Park 5, The Crime Report, Nov 30, 2018
The Real Culprit in the Central Park 5 Convictions, The Crime Report, July 8, 2019