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Mystery Writers’ Furor Revives Debate Over Central Park Five

As a literary award was rescinded from prosecutor-turned-mystery author Linda Fairstein, the nearly three-decade-old case of the Central Park Five has returned as a focus of painful debate.

While Fairstein, the head of the Manhattan DA’s sex crimes unit at the time, tried to point out to her accusers on social media that she did not even prosecute the famous rape trial, it became clear that the wounds of the case—in which five young men of color were convicted but later released when DNA evidence revealed the attacker’s true identity—are far from healed.

The firestorm began on November 27, when the Mystery Writers of America announced the recipients of its celebrated Grand Master award and other honorary awards, to be bestowed at the 2019 Edgars Awards banquet.

Both Fairstein and Martin Cruz Smith were to receive awards recognizing their achievements. Fairstein is the author of 20 novels about a fictional Manhattan prosecutor, Alexandra Cooper, based on her own past work as the chief of the sex-crimes unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Her fiction has received acclaim and best-seller status.

Yet only two days later, the Mystery Writers of America yanked the award away, with a statement:

On Tuesday, November 27, Mystery Writers of America announced the recipients of Grand Master, Raven & Ellery Queen Awards, special awards given out annually. Shortly afterwards, the MWA membership began to express concern over the inclusion of Linda Fairstein as a Grand Master, citing controversy in which she has been involved.

When the MWA Board made its selection, it was unaware of Ms. Fairstein’s role in the controversy.

After profound reflection, the Board has decided that MWA cannot move forward with an award that lacks the support of such a large percentage of our members. Therefore, the Board of Directors has decided to withdraw the Linda Fairstein Grand Master award. We realize that this action will be unsatisfactory to many. We apologize for any pain and disappointment this situation has caused.

What happened within the span of those two days?

A social media campaign was launched by another crime-fiction writer, Attica Locke, who is working on the upcoming Netflix series “Central Park Five,”  directed by Ava DuVernay.

Among her own literary accomplishments,  Locke’s novel Pleasantville was the 2016 winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, while her first novel, Black Water Rising, was nominated for an Edgar Award (and won), an NAACP Image Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize

At noon on the day of the announcement of Fairstein’s being honored, Locke tweeted:

As a member and 2018 Edgar winner, I am begging you to reconsider having Linda Fairstein serve as a Grand Master in next year’s awards ceremony. She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five./ For which she has never apologized or recanted her insistence on their guilt for the most heinous of crimes, ‘guilt’ based solely on evidence procured through violence and ill treatment of children in lock up./ Even after all five (now) men have been exonerated by the state of NY, and other members of the NYC District Attorney’s Office have admitted prosecutorial misconduct on the part of those handling the case in their office.

As the tweets built in momentum and became the focus of conversation on Twitter before jumping to Facebook, the Los Angeles Times’s Steph Cha picked up the story, writing, “I’d heard of [Martin Cruz} 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.

“(Fairstein) shouldn’t be the toast of a black-tie literary gala. She should be notorious.”

“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.”

Fairstein took to Twitter herself, saying, “@atticalocke Ms. Locke – I was neither the prosecutor nor investigator in the case you mention. I was certainly NOT the person who ‘singlehandedly spearheaded’ the investigation. Why don’t you and I have a civilized conversation, so I can refresh you with the facts? Thank you.”

The ire toward Fairstein stems in part from a story she wrote on July 31st of this year for the New York Law Journal headlined: “In Defense of the Central Park 5 Prosecution.”

In it, she said that the narrative of the five men being pressured into false confession is not true. Fairstein wrote: “The confessions were not coerced.  There were weeks of a Huntley hearing in which the voluntariness of the statements was explored, and in a 160-page opinion by Judge Galligan, all were ruled admissible (that decision, which lays out facts and a timetable, will be available this month).

“Now, for the first time, every reader of this paper can watch the videos online, on the city’s website.”

Fairstein’s story was in response to an earlier New York Law Journal article stating “Lawyers for Central Park Five Say First Release of Discovery Materials Conveys Bias.”

Linda Fairstein

Former Manhattan sex crimes investigator Linda Fairstein, now a mystery writer. photo courtesy University of Scranton via Flickr

The videos and records of investigation in the 1989 case are coming to light because the city released thousands of pages of internal law enforcement documents from that investigation. Some of them have never been made public before.

The Manhattan district attorney agreed to vacate the Central Park Five convictions in 2002 after DNA evidence pointed to another man, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist. He knocked the woman on the head with a branch and viciously assaulted her in the park.

The five young men — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Kharey Wise — later received a settlement from the city totaling nearly $45 million.

The five men are currently pursing more millions in damages from New York State in the Court of Claims.

There was never any DNA evidence linking any of the five men, then teenagers, with the rape of a young white female banker jogging in Central Park at night.  The entire case was built on the confessions of the five while in custody. Fairstein was present during some of these police interrogations.

However, the five teenagers were part of a larger group accused of attacking joggers and other people in Central Park that same night. Some of the injuries were severe.

Fairstein tweeted to Locke: ”Talk to me about the other six men viciously attacked in the Park that night, which these and others admit doing. You don’t care about them? Good night.”

On Twitter, Fairstein was accused of being rude and racist, with several people saying she should be imprisoned herself. One person wrote: “Linda should spend as much time in prison as the five men whose lives she helped ruin combined.”

Locke and others focus on what they say is Fairstein’s lack of apology for the men’s wrongful convictions.

In response to the MWA rescinding the Grand Master Award, Fairstein posted on Facebook Thursday night:

When I received the call about being selected as Mystery Writers of America 2019 Grand Master, it was one of the happiest moments of my literary life. I have been a member of MWA throughout my entire writing career. I am extremely disappointed, of course, to have this great award-designation revoked so hastily. I remain enormously proud of our pioneering work at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, advancing the ability of victims of violence to triumph in the criminal justice system. I thank MWA for the initial honor and for the joy it inspired, which can never be revoked, and I am happy to enthusiastically support the new Grand Master.

She received a largely sympathetic response, with one reader posting, “How unfortunate that that case overshadows every good thing done as a prosecutor over 30 plus years and as an author for at least 20. There were more people involved in that case than Ms Fairstein, but of course her name is the only one out of the NYC police/district attorney’s office being chosen as a Grand Master for the Mystery Writers group

“And the two really have nothing to do with each other. But Ms Fairstein has provided a graceful exit and I support that.”

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor-digital of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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