Former New York City prosecutor Linda Fairstein is taking Netflix and filmmaker Ava DuVernay to court over what she says was a “false and defamatory” portrayal of her in the network’s acclaimed drama series “When They See Us.”
Fairstein, who once headed the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit that wrongfully prosecuted five Black and brown teens in the brutal rape and beating of a female jogger in 1989, filed a 119-page defamation suit in federal court Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported.
In it, she accuses show creators of smearing her as a “racist, unethical villain” hell-bent on pinning the heinous crime on “innocent children of color.”
“ ‘When They See Us’ portrays Fairstein in a false and defamatory manner in nearly every scene in the three episodes in which she appears,” the suit states, adding, ‘The film series’ portrayal of Ms. Fairstein cannot be justified as the mere use of artistic license or dramatization.”
The show, which debuted last May to rave reviews, dramatizes the disputed case against then teens Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise — who were dubbed the “Central Park Five.” The teens each served varied prison sentences for the violent assault on Central Park jogger Trish Meili until DNA testing and an admission from convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes proved their innocence.
The men were formally cleared in 2002 and are now known as the “Exonerated Five.”
Fairstein, portrayed by actress Felicity Huffman in the hit film, was less than pleased with how she was depicted. The series triggered a torrent of scrutiny over her role in the wrongful convictions, forcing her resignation from several organizations and boards of trustees. The prosecutor-turned-mystery book author even faced death threats, and was dropped by both her publisher and her agent.
“The portrayal of Ms. Fairstein in the film series was deliberately calculated to create one, clear and unmistakable villain to be targeted for hatred and vilification for what happened to The Five,” the complaint argues.
The suit cites at least three episodes in which Fairstein is depicted as the “mastermind” behind the steps taken to convict the five teens, including suppressing DNA evidence, interrogating unaccompanied minors and directing NYPD cops to coerce confessions out of them.
Fairstein’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, denies his client took any of these actions and blasted Netflix and DuVernay, the series’ creator, for the “egregious” errors.
“All of this was all independently verifiable by testimony under oath, by sworn statements, by contemporaneous notes,” Miltenberg said, according to the Daily News. “All they had to do was spend some time doing some actual research and they would have gotten it right. Netlifx must have had to work very hard to get it as wrong as they did about Linda.”
He further accused the defendants of purposely fabricating claims about Fairstein, 72, in an effort to hurt her — the complaint adding that her storied reputation as a prosecutor has been completely “sullied if not destroyed.”
Fairstein’s suit is seeking $75,000 in damages for economic losses, reputational harm, lost career opportunities and emotional distress, according to NBC News.
Netflix has since responded to her complaint, calling it “frivolous.”
“Linda Fairstein’s frivolous lawsuit is without merit,” a spokesperson for the company said. “We intend to vigorously defend ‘When They See Us’ and Ava DuVernay and Attica Locke, the incredible team behind the series.”
Critics shared similar reactions online, offering little sympathy for the embattled mystery books author.
“If there truly is a hell, #LindaFairstein has a first class ticket!” comedian DL Hughley tweeted. “HER LIFE WAS RUINED?!?! You mean BY THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU DID?!? Unbelievable…”
Another agreed, writing: “Linda Fairstein is proof that white people cant take what they dish out.”
“If Linda Fairstein do not like her role in history she should have played another one,” someone else chimed in, reacting to news of the lawsuit.
Others said they hope Fairstein “loses her lawsuit.”
DuVernay has yet to respond to the claims.