Ava DuVernay’s dramatic Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” chronicles the infamous wrongful conviction of five black and Latino teenagers in New York City for the brutal 1989 rape and assault of a young white woman who was attacked while she was jogging in Central Park. In its depiction of Manhattan District Attorney Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the investigation and prosecution of the young men, the series has sparked a long-overdue conversation about the role of prosecutors in perpetrating false convictions.
Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, both 14; Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray, both 15; and Korey Wise, 16, were rounded up by New York City Police detectives and interrogated for nearly two days without any lawyers present before falsely confessing. Wise later said, “My mind felt like scrambled eggs.” In 2002, DNA evidence revealed the true perpetrator to be Mattias Reyes. The youths — who became known as the Central Park Five — spent a collective 40 years in prison. Reyes went on to rape and assault at least four more women, murdering one of them.
To this day, Fairstein is unrepentant, even defiant, about her key role in the Central Park Five case. In a 2002 interview, she boasted of personally overseeing the interrogations of the teens as “the 800-pound-gorilla” in the room. “It was one of the most brilliant police investigations I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Fairstein’s failure only perpetuates the harms perpetrated so long ago against the five exonerated men.
The DNA evidence did not exonerate the boys, in Fairstein’s opinion: “I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids,” she explained, theorizing that Reyes completed the assault they had begun as a group. An exhaustive investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office debunked that theory, finding that the convictions “rested almost entirely” on the teenagers’ false confessions and that Reyes had unquestionably acted alone. The investigation concluded that the convictions should be voided.
“When They See Us” is unsparing in its portrayal of Fairstein, who prospered in a second career as a crime novelist while the Central Park Five languished in jail. Now series viewers are demanding that consumers stop buying Fairstein’s books, which feature a protagonist, Alexandra Cooper, who is — not surprisingly — a Manhattan district attorney sex crimes prosecutor. At one point #cancellindafairstein was trending on Twitter, and Fairstein has been forced to resign from various boards. She has responded by calling DuVernay’s docudrama “a basket of lies.”
What I would like to see instead of this kind of public bloodlust, name calling and finger pointing is a different kind of reckoning, a resolution of the cases that even now has eluded the Central Park Five: restorative justice.
In the world I imagine, Fairstein would sit with the five boys-now-men in a circle, together with their families, friends and attorneys. The NYPD officers who also insist that the Central Park Five are guilty would be present, too. They would hear directly from each of the exonerated defendants. Rather than reacting with defensive denials and irrational claims, Fairstein and these law enforcement officers would actively listen to confront the facts and the men’s stories. It might change their minds.
This isn’t a fantastical idea. It has happened before. Thomas Haynesworth was convicted of raping three different women in the 1980s in Virginia. When DNA evidence exonerated him in one of the cases, the prosecutor took a hard look at the other two convictions and concluded Haynesworth was innocent of all three.
This prosecutor — Ken Cuccinelli, then Virginia’s attorney general and now President Trump’s pick for immigration czar — did not double or triple down as Fairstein has. He examined the situation and acknowledged that the state had stolen 26 years of Haynesworth’s life, and he vowed to rectify it.
Cuccinelli hired Haynesworth to work in his office after his release on parole even though he was a registered sex offender. He also joined with Haynesworth’s legal team to argue to the Virginia Court of Appeals that Haynesworth was innocent of every allegation.
It is a remarkable story and one that should not be unusual. For Cuccinelli and Haynesworth, honesty and atonement replaced injustice. That Fairstein cannot take even the smallest step in that direction — even after her own office conceded that the Central Park Five are innocent — is more than disappointing. Her failure only perpetuates the harms perpetrated so long ago against the five exonerated men. It prevents everyone involved in the case from achieving insights and healing that would benefit them and, by extension, our justice system.
Lara Bazelon is a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and the author of “Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction.”
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