The former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein sued Netflix and the director Ava DuVernay on Wednesday, arguing that she was falsely portrayed as a “racist, unethical villain” pushing for the convictions of five black and Latino teenagers in “When They See Us,” a series about the Central Park Five case.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Fort Myers, Fla., came after the series made Ms. Fairstein, a best-selling crime novelist, the object of public outrage, prompting her to be dropped by her publisher and resign from several prominent boards.
In the suit, Ms. Fairstein claims the four-part series defamed her 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,” said Andrew Miltenberg, a lawyer for Ms. Fairstein. “In truth, and as detailed in the lawsuit, Ms. Fairstein was responsible for neither aspect of the case.”
Netflix rejected Ms. Fairstein’s claims.
“Linda Fairstein’s frivolous lawsuit is without merit,” the company said. “We intend to vigorously defend ‘When They See Us’ and Ava DuVernay and Attica Locke, the incredible team behind the series.”
Ms. DuVernay, an Academy Award-nominated director, writer and producer, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Ms. Locke, a writer and producer of the series, who was also named as a defendant, did not respond to an email.
“When They See Us,” which debuted last May, centers on the 1989 case of five teenagers who were arrested and convicted in connection with the rape and assault of a white female jogger in Central Park. The case came to symbolize panic about urban crime and racism in the media and in the criminal justice system.
The five were convicted based partly on police-coerced confessions, and each spent years in prison before they were exonerated in 2002 after Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to the crime. In 2014, they were awarded a $41 million settlement, though the City of New York denied any wrongdoing.
Ms. Fairstein ran the sex crimes division of the Manhattan district attorney’s office in 1989 and was portrayed in the series as the driving force behind the prosecution. After the show premiered, online petitions and a hashtag, #CancelLindaFairstein, called for a boycott of her books and her removal from prominent boards.
She was dropped by her publisher, Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and resigned from the boards of several organizations including Safe Horizon and the Joyful Heart Foundation, both of which aid victims of sexual violence, and Vassar College, her alma mater.
“Ms. Fairstein’s reputation and career — in the law and in literature — have been irreparably damaged by the defendants’ actions,” Mr. Miltenberg said.
Even before the show debuted, Ms. Fairstein’s reputation had taken a hit.
In 2018, Mystery Writers of America, which presents the annual Edgar Awards, said it would no longer honor her with one of its “Grand Master” awards for literary achievement. The organization withdrew the award after New York City released internal law enforcement documents from the Central Park jogger investigation that reinforced the decision to overturn the convictions of the five defendants.
After the Netflix series began streaming, Ms. Fairstein denounced her depiction as “grossly and maliciously inaccurate,” and wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last year claiming the series was full of “distortions and falsehoods.”
In the lawsuit, she argues that the series depicts her as a “racist, unethical villain who is determined to jail innocent children of color at any cost.”
The suit claims the series falsely showed Ms. Fairstein calling for a roundup of young black “thugs,” referring to people of color as “animals,” directing detectives to coerce confessions and suppressing DNA evidence.
Ms. Fairstein is portrayed in the series by the actress Felicity Huffman, who was sentenced to 14 days in prison in the college admissions scandal after filming was complete.
Mr. Miltenberg said that the lawsuit was “not intended to re-litigate the guilt or innocence of The Five” and that Ms. Fairstein agreed with the decision to vacate their convictions after Mr. Reyes’s confession.
[via The New York Times]