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Renée Graham

Justice belatedly catches up with Linda Fairstein

Linda Fairstein, who led the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit during the Central Park jogger case, prosecuted the “Central Park Five,” and later became a crime novelist, at home in New York, March 26, 2014.
Linda Fairstein, who led the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit during the Central Park jogger case, prosecuted the “Central Park Five,” and later became a crime novelist, at home in New York, March 26, 2014. (Katherine Marks/The New York Times)

Linda Fairstein claims she’s been falsely accused, and that her reputation and character are being attacked based on what she calls “outright fabrication.”

Which is exactly what Fairstein did to the “Central Park Five.”

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s elegiac miniseries “When They See Us” is doing more than focusing attention on five teens of color wrongly convicted of rape in 1990. It’s also turned a harsh light on Fairstein, the former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor at the center of this egregious injustice.

As portrayed by Felicity Huffman, Fairstein is a blunt instrument. Her only focus is getting the convictions a vengeful public demands, even though there isn’t a shred of evidence confirming the teens’ culpability. Since the Netflix series premiered last month, Fairstein, who went on to become a popular author, was dropped by her longtime publisher, has resigned from her alma mater’s board of trustees, and has been branded with the social media equivalent of a scarlet letter: #CancelLindaFairstein.

Yes, it’s a small justice. Still, Fairstein is now being held accountable for her wrongdoing.

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Thirty years ago, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise were charged with raping and beating a young white woman jogger in New York’s iconic greenspace. The boys were between the ages of 14 and 16. Tabloids branded the crime “wilding,” conjuring white fears of black and brown men ravaging white women that have persisted since the Pilgrims landed.

In response to the arrests, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers demanding the return of the death penalty.

No forensic or DNA evidence linked the boys to the crime. Yet Fairstein pushed her case based on confessions they maintained were coerced through threats, rough treatment, and empty promises during hours of interrogations she oversaw.

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At the time, then New York Governor Mario Cuomo called the crime, “The ultimate sign that says none of us are safe.”

What it also signaled was something people of color already knew: They were not safe within the justice system. The Central Park Five served between six and 13 years before they were cleared. In 2002, convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the jogger’s rape, and his DNA was a match. The Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated, and the city later settled a lawsuit filed by the men for $41 million.

Meanwhile, Fairstein retired as a prosecutor and became a bestselling novelist. In 1993, Glamour gave her a “Woman of the Year” award, a decision its current editors now regret.

Despite the exonerations, Fairstein has never expressed remorse for her role in upending the lives of these young men. Instead, she’s now on a crusade to clear her own name, claiming DuVernay’s film is “full of distortions and falsehoods,” as she wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

In a tweet, DuVernay said of Fairstein’s comments: “Expected and typical.”

I’ll give Fairstein this much credit — she’s consistent in being wrong and strong. She has spent decades doubling down on her belief that the investigation adhered to the letter of the law. If the former prosecutor cared more about justice than her fading reputation, she would regret her role in sending terrified kids to hard lives behind bars. She would have spent time trying to repair the psychological damage this case inflicted on communities of color in New York, and beyond.

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Fairstein should also show some contrition toward at least five women who were attacked by Reyes after the Central Park attack. He remained free because Fairstein instead mounted a bogus case fueled by systemic racism, prosecutorial misconduct, and a shocked city’s lynch mob mentality.

“When you do dirt, you can’t run; no matter how long it is, the truth comes out,” Santana, of the Central Park Five, said recently about Fairstein. “Even though it’s 30 years later, she has to pay for her crime.”

The Central Park Five paid dearly for a crime they didn’t commit. At long last, the woman who brutally interrupted their lives is starting to pay for hers.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.