Former prosecutor Linda Fairstein took aim at Netflix and Ava DuVernay Wednesday when she filed a lawsuit against the streaming service, director and DuVerney’s co-writer Attica Locke claiming that their miniseries, When They See Us, defamed her.
The four-part series, which premiered on Netflix in May of 2019, “portrays Ms. Fairstein in a false and defamatory matter in nearly every scene in the three episodes in which her character appears,” according to a statement from her attorney, Andrew Miltenberg.
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When They See Us tells the tale of the so-called Central Park Five, a quintet of young men of color who were wrongly accused and imprisoned for a rape they did not commit. Former New York City Assistant District Attorney Fairstein was a prosecutor at the time and her office, the sex crimes unit, oversaw the case. Over the course of the show, Fairstein alleges that she was incorrectly portrayed by actress Felicity Huffman as having a larger role in the five’s fate than was factually accurate.
“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,” her attorney says. “In truth, and as detailed in the lawsuit, Ms. Fairstein was responsible for neither aspect of the case.”
“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,” the lawsuit states, adding that the film inaccurately portrayed Fairstein as interrogating unaccompanied minors, calling for a roundup of “young, black” men and “thugs,” and calling people of color “animals.” The suit alleges that DuVernay and other defendants acted with actual malice since they knew the portrayal of Fairstein was false.
The suit notes that Fairstein’s reputation and livelihood have been negatively impacted by the miniseries, including literary contracts, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs. She now seeks actual damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief against the defendants.
“Linda Fairstein’s frivolous lawsuit is without merit,” a rep for Netflix tells Rolling Stone. “We intend to vigorously defend When They See Us and Ava DuVernay and Attica Locke, the incredible team behind the series.”
A representative for DuVernay did not have comment and a rep for Locke did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request.
The Central Park Five were exonerated in 2002 when a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime — his guilt backed up by DNA evidence. “Ms. Fairstein’s legal action is not intended to re-litigate the guilt or innocence of The Five,” Fairstein’s attorney adds. “In fact, Ms. Fairstein previously stated that she agreed with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office decision to vacate the convictions of The Five.”
After the premiere of the show, Fairstein stood by her previous work with the case, however. She wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which she took aim at the miniseries, but also the innocence of the five young men; while she agrees they should be cleared of the rape, she says that they may have committed other crimes that night in what was essentially a riot.
Fairstein recently appeared in AMC’s new five-part docuseries, The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park, which centered around the 1986 killing of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin. Fairstein was an assistant district attorney at the Manhattan D.A.’s office at the time and was heavily involved in the case.
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