Prosecutors and officials who were responsible for sending the “Central Park Five” to prison in 1989 are facing backlash after the airing of Netflix miniseries When They See Us.
Elizabeth Lederer, who was the lead prosecutor on the case, will not be returning to Columbia Law School as a part-time lecturer this fall, following the fallout from the miniseries. Her appointment had previously been protested by the school’s Black Law Students Association. “Given the nature of the recent publicity generated by the Netflix portrayal of the Central Park case it is best for me not to renew my teaching application,” she wrote in an email to the school’s dean, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday. (She continues to work in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office as a prosecutor.) In the series, Lederer is played by Vera Farmiga.
Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the prosecution of the case, has taken issue with the way she’s depicted in the series. Following mounting outcry over her role in the case as it’s depicted in When They See Us, Fairstein wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week that the show, directed by Ava DuVernay, “attempts to portray me as an overzealous prosecutor and bigot, the police as incompetent or worse, and five suspects as innocent of all charges against them.”
“None of this is true,” she claimed. So, as Netflix confirms When They See Us has been “the most-watched series in the US every day” since its release, here’s what you need to know about the impact it’s having on the people whose stories it retells.
What is the story behind When They See Us?
When They See Us tells the story of the 1989 Central Park Jogger Case, a sex crime (and the ensuing criminal proceedings thereof) which captured the attention of New York and national U.S. media. Five Harlem teens — Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray and Raymond Santana — were arrested for the assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a woman who was running through the park at night. Despite inconsistent evidence linking the teens to the crime, and that all five later said their confessions had been made under duress, they were all convicted and sent to prison. The charges were later vacated, after the teens had served between six and 13 years, when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, confessed to the crime in 2002.
The miniseries covers the arrest, trials and convictions of the teens, their release in 2002 and the multi-million settlement they received from New York City in 2014. It also tells the stories of the teens’ families, and the impact their arrests had on the community and city. Specifically, Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman, is depicted as a prosecutor who goes to great lengths to make sure the teens are charged with the assault and rape — even though their confessions are not consistent. In the series, she ignores evidence that suggests the teens were not responsible for the rape and changes. The series, which the five men consulted upon, also portrays cops as coercing the boys into their confessions; its release coincides at a time of greater scrutiny on the way minorities and marginalized communities are policed.
How was the case covered in the media at the time?
The Central Park Jogger Case was seen as “one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980’s,” the New York Times wrote in 1990, as part of a profile on Meili’s recovery. The case was also viewed as playing into the “race panic” and sensationalism that was going on in New York City. While the case was progressing, Donald Trump took out an ostensibly-related ad calling for the return of the death penalty. (In recent interviews, members of the Central Park Five said this was amount to “a bounty on our [heads].”) The headline for the ad said “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
In 2003 the New York Police Department said that an internal investigation into how the department handled the case had found no evidence of misconduct. When four of the men filed a lawsuit against the city, the city refused to settle; it was not until 2014 when then-newly elected mayor Bill De Blasio agreed to settle — for $41 million.
What has the show’s impact meant in recent weeks?
In her op-ed, Fairstein alleged that the series lied about the teens’ parents not being present during interrogations, and with regards to the teens not being fed while in police custody. She also said that the series took too much dramatic license with her dialogue, and made her look like an “evil mastermind.”
DuVernay appeared to respond to Fairstein’s column in a tweet saying “Expected and Typical. Onward…” Speaking on a recent panel about the show, Variety quotes When They See Us producer Jane Rosenthal saying that Fairstein was contacted with a view to including her perspective. “She was also concerned that we were talking to the five men,” Rosenthal said of Fairstein. “Her point of view was clearly that she didn’t want us talking to the five men if we were talking to her.” To this, DuVernay (who has also spoken of attempts to include Fairstein in the show) responded, “that’s the tea that just got spilled.”
Fairstein, who became a successful crime novelist after working as prosecutor in New York City, was dropped by her book publisher as a result of the backlash. She has also resigned from several boards she was a part of and deleted her public social media profiles.