New York Daily News ArchiveGetty Images
Facing backlash from the Netflix series When They See Us, prosecutor Linda Fairstein has been dropped by her longtime book publisher and stepped down from the boards of various nonprofits. Now she’s doubling down on her position that the boys known as the Central Park Five—Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise—weren’t completely innocent, even though they were exonerated after Matias Reyes, a serial rapist, confessed to the attack on the Central Park jogger in 2002, and DNA supported his account.
After they were exonerated, the men sued New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress in 2014, winning a $41 million wrongful conviction payout. And then, two years later, they received $3.9 million in another settlement with the state. And yet, Fairstein continues to try to link the men to the three-decade-old crime, as well as other attacks she says happened in the park that night.
She writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Mr. Reyes’s confession, DNA match and claim that he acted alone required that the rape charges against the five be vacated. I agreed with that decision, and still do. But the other charges, for crimes against other victims, should not have been vacated. Nothing Mr. Reyes said exonerated these five of those attacks. And there was certainly more than enough evidence to support those convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot and other charges.
This isn’t the first time since the exoneration that Fairstein has taken this position. In 2002, she told the New Yorker: “I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids. He stayed longer when the others moved on. He completed the assault. I don’t think there is a question in the minds of anyone present during the interrogation process that these five men were participants, not only in the other attacks that night but in the attack on the jogger.”
But the lawyer who represented Richardson, Santana, McCray, and Salaam in two settlements against the city after all five men were exonerated, explains how the reinvestigation into the case proves Fairstein’s claims wrong.
“We know Matias Reyes committed the crime because his DNA confirmed it. When the DA reinvestigated the case, they concluded that he acted alone. One, it was his modus operandi for his nine rapes and murders that he committed in that part of New York in winter and spring of 1989,” Jonathan Moore tells me. “By definition, those statements are false and the question they don’t want to answer—Fairstein, all of the detectives—throughout this whole history is how did these kids get the information that ended up in their statements? And the only answer is it came from the cops. That’s why they city paid $41 million to settle the case because they knew they were going to lose on that.”
In her op-ed, Fairstein also attempts to link Richardson, Santana, McCray, Salaam, and Wise to other attacks in the park that night. But Moore says all five men have denied involvement in those incidents.
“They had these black and brown kids in the precinct—then they discovered this woman’s body in the park brutally beaten, sadistically assaulted and, without the blink of an eye, they assume that the people who did that were those young 14-, 15-year-old boys,” Moore says. “That’s bias. And [Fairstein] doesn’t want to admit that she had that bias. Most prosecutors and most district attorneys in all these wrongful conviction cases, they refuse to admit they might have done something wrong.”
The series portrays Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman, as being immediately convinced of the boys’ guilt despite any physical evidence linking them to the crime scene. And it shows her leading the investigation, which led to false confessions from four of the five boys.
“This op-ed is a classic example of tunnel vision. None of the Five’s DNA was found on the jogger, despite confessions that claimed that they had forced intercourse on her,” Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and an expert on false confessions, tells me. “In contrast, Matias Reyes’ DNA was found on her sock. And despite an exhaustive 11-month investigation, the Manhattan DA’s office was unable to identify any link between Reyes and the Five. Reyes was also able to accurately draw and describe the crime scene, while the Five’s confessions got many basic facts wrong—like where the attack took place.”
Netflix and Fairstein didn’t respond to my requests for comment. DuVernay told The Daily Beast she reached out to Fairstein while making the series, but the former prosecutor demanded script approval. And in an interview with NPR, DuVernay said about the prosecution: “The city never apologized; they settled. No one on the side of the prosecution ever apologized. They’ve stuck by the fact that even though the real man came out and said: I did it, I did it alone. Even though all of that physical evidence was from him, was matched to the victim, and it was in fact him, and only him, these people still refuse to acknowledge that they—not made a mistake—lied. Lied.”