Director Ava DuVernay's new Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which dramatizes the true story of the Central Park 5, is causing quite a stir, especially with regards to the prosecutors who were on the case.
In 1989, after the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park, five boys of color − Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise − were wrongfully prosecuted and sentenced to five to 10 years for a crime that they didn't commit.
After another man confessed to the crime and was found to match DNA found at the crime scene in 2002, the five were exonerated of all charges. Now, as a result of the Netflix show, the real-life prosecutors of the case, Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, are facing real-life consequences.
Elizabeth Lederer (played by Vera Farmiga) was the lead prosecutor of the Central Park jogger case. In When They See Us, she is portrayed as having some doubts about the validity of the prosecution's case against the five boys. However, these doubts do not stop her on-screen double from being ruthless and even hiding potential evidence from the Central Park 5's defense team. Lederer continues to work as a prosecutor at the Manhattan district attorney's office today.
After the release of When They See Us, students at Columbia Law School, led by the Black Law Students Association, protested Lederer's employment as a part-time lecturer. Over 10,000 people signed a petition against her return to Columbia. In an email to the university, Lederer stated that she would not seek to renew her teaching contract, citing the publicity from the Netflix series. She did not contest the events depicted in When They See Us, however.
Linda Fairstein (played by Felicity Huffman, who recently plead guilty in the college admissions scandal) was the head of the sex-crimes division of the Manhattan district attorney’s office from 1976 to 2002. In When They See Us, Fairstein is the driving force behind the five boys' arrest, prosecution, and conviction. Multiple times in the series, Fairstein bulldozes past any inconsistencies and problems with the prosecution's narrative, convinced of the five's guilt. Even after the five boys are exonerated and new evidence clearly points to their innocence in 2002, Fairstein continues to say that the boys were involved in the rape, refusing to give up an inch.
Fairstein had a long career as a sexual violence prosecutor before retiring and becoming a mystery novelist, a career change that When They See Us highlighted. After the Netflix series aired, fans posted the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein and called for a boycott of her novels. In less than two weeks, Fairstein's publisher and agent both dropped her. Fairstein also resigned from several boards of trustees, including the Joyful Heart Foundation and Safe Horizons. After students at Vassar College gathered 13,000 signatures demanding Fairstein's removal from the university's board of trustees in less than two days, Fairstein also resigned from her alma mater.
Unlike Lederer, Fairstein contested the accuracy of When They See Us in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, saying that it's "so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication." Describing her characterization in the film, Fairstein writes: "Ms. DuVernay’s film attempts to portray me as an overzealous prosecutor and a bigot, the police as incompetent or worse, and the five suspects as innocent of all charges against them. None of this is true."
Fairstein continues by outlining elements of the plot that she says are inaccurate. They range from the seemingly minor − like that Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise were picked up at their houses, rather than on the street − to broad claims that the NYPD did not in any way coerce the Central Park 5 into making the confessions that they later recanted. She doesn't provide any explanation for why five teenagers would admit to taking part in a crime they did not commit and seems to imply that they could still have been involved in the brutal rape of the jogger. She also claims that the five boys are guilty of other minor charges, including assault against other people in Central Park that night.
While Fairstein is adamant that When They See Us defames her, her insistence that the Central Park 5 are guilty of something strikes the same chord as her character in the miniseries. Additionally, some of her comments, including describing a group of teenagers as "the gang of 30," seem racially insensitive at best. Even though Fairstein states that she believes that vacating the charge of rape was the correct decision in 2002, she doesn't express any regret or acknowledge the humanity of the five young men. Instead, she continues to attack the integrity of the Central Park 5, thirty years after they were wrongfully convicted.
For thirty years, the Central Park 5's story has conflicted with the narrative of the NYPD and prosecution, so it's no surprise that DuVernay's miniseries, which features the real "Exonerated Five" during the credits, doesn't align with Fairstein's version of events. Fairstein's lawyer has now threatened legal action against Netflix and DuVernay.