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Writer Linda Fairstein's past as a prosecutor overseeing the Central Park Five case causes award controversy

Writer Linda Fairstein's past as a prosecutor overseeing the Central Park Five case causes award controversy
Author Linda Fairstein, center, signs her ninth crime novel, "Bad Blood," to Donna Hanover, left, with novelist Mary Higgins Clark, right. Fairstein has been named a Grand Master at the 2019 Edgar Awards. (Diane Bondareff / Montblanc/AP)

On Nov. 29, Mystery Writers of America decided to withdraw the Linda Fairstein Grand Master award.

Mystery Writers of America announced the recipients of its 2019 Grand Master Award on Tuesday, but the announcement has been met with more outrage than celebration.

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The Grand Master Award, presented at the annual Edgar Awards banquet in New York, is one of the most prestigious distinctions in the mystery genre, an honor held by the likes of Stephen King, Walter Mosley and Agatha Christie. Next year, the award will go to Martin Cruz Smith and Linda Fairstein. I’d heard of Smith, but not Fairstein. And really, I should have known her name. Not for her internationally bestselling Alexandra Cooper series, but because in her former life working for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park Five. She shouldn’t be the toast of a black-tie literary gala — she should be notorious.

As the head of the Sex Crimes Unit, Fairstein was instrumental in the wrongful conviction of five black teenagers accused of raping a white woman jogger in Central Park in 1989. It was a case that made headlines across the country and captivated television audiences, a story fueled by racial tensions and racist rhetoric.

Fairstein was personally involved in securing the false confessions that formed the prosecution’s entire case. Her conduct was so reprehensible that then-appeals court Judge Vito Titone called her out by name in his dissenting opinion in defendant Yusuf Salaam’s unsuccessful appeal, which details her calculated efforts to isolate and induce a confession from the then-15-year-old suspect.

The Five served six to 13 years in prison before their convictions were vacated following the confession of a serial rapist, confirmed by DNA evidence, in 2002. Fairstein has never apologized or changed her position on their guilt. (Nor has Donald Trump, who in 1989 took out full-page newspaper ads in New York City calling for the return of the death penalty after the teens were arrested.) Only four months ago, in a letter to the editor of the New York Law Journal, Fairstein maintained that the questioning [of the Central Park Five] was respectful, dignified, carried out according to the letter of the law and with sensitivity to the young age of the men.”

Here’s what Mystery Writers of America had to say about Fairstein’s legal career, in this cheery news release on Tuesday morning: “Linda Fairstein became a sex-crimes prosecutor during a time when sex crimes were almost impossible to prosecute. In her 30-year tenure at the Manhattan DA’s Office, she was a pioneer in the war against rape, fighting for historic changes to the criminal justice system and for justice on behalf of victims of the most heinous crimes.” It’s not like they didn’t Google her. They just neglected to mention her most famous case, the one that’s become synonymous with prosecutorial overreach and misconduct.

Shortly after the announcement, author Attica Locke — whose “Bluebird, Bluebird” won the 2018 Edgar Award for best novel —took Mystery Writers of America to task on Twitter, begging the group to reconsider its decision to name Fairstein a Grand Master.

Locke, whose television writing credits include an upcoming Netflix series on the Central Park Five directed by Ava DuVernay, has long been familiar with the case, but didn’t realize until recently that Fairstein had reinvented herself as a crime writer, or that so few crime writers seemed to know about her background.

I was one of the clueless until I saw Locke’s thread, and I’ve been entrenched in the mystery world since my first book came out in 2013. I’ve attended countless book events and conferences — it’s very likely I’ve been in the same room as Fairstein — and have been editing the crime section of the Los Angeles Review of Books since 2015. There are certainly big-name authors I don’t run across, but I tend to hear the gossip. I knew about Anne Perry’s background (see the movie “Heavenly Creatures”) and that former L.A. prosecutor Marcia Clark was publishing mystery novels. I find it disturbing that I never heard a word about Fairstein’s history.

Her presence among us should be the scandal of every conference — it probably would’ve been earlier if there had been more crime writers of color when the Five were exonerated in 2002. But at some point, her background must have become old news, an uncomfortable thing the larger crime world has been happy to ignore. How many of us have been polite to her on accident because the rest of us were polite to her on purpose?

Tacit approval is one thing, of course; the Grand Master Award is another. Mystery Writers of America has made a lot of fuss about diversity over the last few years, and I do believe that the mystery community has made some meaningful strides toward inclusion. But we’re apparently still at a place where the board of Mystery Writers of America thinks calling the white prosecutor who oversaw the conviction of innocent black boys “Grand Masteris a good idea. It’s also worth noting that the Edgar Awards banquet will take place in April, almost exactly 30 years after the Five were wrongfully arrested and imprisoned.

After Locke’s thread spread widely, Mystery Writers of America said via Twitter: “We are taking seriously the issues raised by @atticalocke . Our Board is going to discuss these concerns as soon as possible and make a further statement soon.” It seems as though the blowback has taken the board by surprise. On the one hand, the lack of foresight is breathtaking. But on the other, it sure did look as if everyone was cool with Linda Fairstein for a while there.

Mystery Writers of America is now in a tough spot. Many crime writers have already called for the revocation of Fairstein’s award. Meanwhile, Fairstein is sparring with Locke on Twitter, and I doubt she or her supporters would be happy to see the organization cave to the pressure. While the mystery writing community has changed somewhat over the last few years, it has long been embarrassingly white and, if not outright conservative, less than progressive in its collective values (hello hero cops and beautiful dead girls). Fairstein has made a name for herself writing legal thrillers about a sex crimes prosecutor who serves justice and saves the day. She's made enormous profits with these stories, and has been astoundingly successful in shaping her own narrative and retaining the respect of her community.

Whatever Mystery Writers of America decides –– and let's remember that the loss of a reward is not comparable to the loss of freedom –– this debacle will show our divisions. Fairstein's actions can no longer fly under the radar. We all have to deal with her now.

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Cha is a novelist, editor and attorney. She has been a member of Mystery Writers of America since 2013.

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Nov. 30 9:50 a.m.: This essay was with updated with news that Mystery Writers of America withdrew the Grand Master Award for Linda Fairstein.

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