Linda Fairstein is a writer. Crime novels. She's been a presence in the crime writing community for years. I don't know her at all. We may have said hello at some event or another in years past but I don't remember, and if you asked her who I was, she'd have not a single clue.
Linda Fairstein is now a pariah. She used to be a hero. What happened?
She worked in the Manhattan District Attorney's office as a prosecutor.
She was largely responsible for the creation of the sex crimes unit, later made famous by Law&Order: SVU. Her tenacity, her downright tunnel vision led her to champion victims of sex crimes against all comers and made her a hero to many women.
But she was also part of -- how much and how directly is subject to interpretation and unreliable memory but is nonetheless an ironclad fact -- the team that built the case against the Central Park Five.
The Central Park Five are five young men (then ages 16, 15, 14) who were charged with, and then convicted of a brutal rape.
DNA evidence later exonerated all five; they sued the city and won.
The crime occurred in 1989.
The trial took place in 1990.
Another man confessed to the crime in 2001.
The convictions for all five (now) men were vacated in 2002.
The dates are important because it's now 2019.
17 years have passed since it became clear there was a terrible miscarriage of justice.
But it was more than a miscarriage of justice: the confessions wrung from those (then) boys were clearly forced or coerced. This wasn't just a mistake, it was getting what you wanted, regardless of who had to suffer.
Now, 30 years after the event and 17 years after the vacated verdict, Linda Fairstein is in hot water.
The first sign was when she was selected to be a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master. The press release was issued, and several authors protested vigorously.
Their point was that a woman who had been part of team that railroaded the Central Park Five, and continues to this day to maintain she did nothing wrong, was not someone that MWA should honor.
Then, Ava DuVernay released her movie about the Central Park Five. Felicity Huffman plays Linda Fairstein, in a casting choice so ironic you just have to stop for a moment to admire the machinations of the universe.
Felicity Huffman is a compelling actor. Her portrayal of Linda Fairstein evokes serious anger and outrage.
And a lot more people see movies than read press releases from MWA.
The fallout was instant, and brutal.
Some of the charities Linda Fairstein has been part of for years accepted her resignation.
Glamour magazine went so far as to strip her of their Woman of the Year award...given to her in 1993.
Her publisher, Dutton, in a tersely worded press release, said they would no longer publish her. They "bought out" her contract. Specifics not disclosed, but it wasn't a pittance.
Her agency has severed their representation.
If your first reaction is "Good, she should feel what it's like to have your whole life taken away from you by people who can do that" I can sympathize. That was my first reaction too.
My next point though is this: Dutton, the charities, the agency, all of us knew that Linda Fairstein participated materially in the Central Park case prosecution. It's never been a secret. The information wasn't kept quiet. EVERYONE KNEW.
In fact, everyone knew it was botched as far back as 2002, and botched BIG time when the city settled for millions of dollars.
I can understand why Linda Fairstein might feel blindsided here.
And I can understand why she might be wondering why and how things changed so much, and so quickly.
Two things changed: first, the Ava DuVernay movie. No longer described in dry, objective newspaper and magazine articles that are subject to litigation, Linda Fairstein is now made flesh and fang by an actor.
In a movie, what's real, what's true, what's accurate often takes second place to what's cinematic. And what makes a good story.
So what is Linda Fairstein paying for now? Her bad judgment in prosecuting the five young men? Her unrepentant position that she did no wrong? Or the movie that paints her in broad strokes of cruel?
The second thing that changed: The advent of social media that encourages and foments a pile-on mentality that allows for no nuance, no grey areas, no reasonable dissension.
I must say I thought long and hard about posting this because frankly, I'm not eager to be a target of that mob mentality.
If we can separate out our feelings about what happened with the Central Park Five (just for the purposes of this discussion) is it fair to penalize Linda Fairstein NOW for something that not only happened 30 years ago, but was never hidden, concealed, or covered up?
Linda Fairstein is paying an enormous price it seems NOT for her role in this case, but for creative choices made by an actor and director, and the advent of Twitter.
And some people might say, with no small bit of just cause: it's about time.
But the larger question is this:
Is there a statute of limitations on penalizing even the self-righteously obtuse?
And how far back are we going to go?
If someone made a movie about the worst choices in your life, and cast you to as the villain, how would you fare?
And the biggest question, the question that took me a long time to see and for which I have no answer: The Ava DuVernay movie is the first time this story has been told by a black person. Is that a factor in this reaction?
I'm thinking about this a lot.
I'd welcome your thoughts on the subject as well.
Usual rules for comments: no invective, no political insults, no blanket statements. Anything like that will be deleted by me with no notice. Thoughtful comments offering different opinions are welcome.