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Linda Fairstein’s role in railroading the Central Park 5 escaped everyone’s attention — until now

How Linda Fairstein won — and lost — the Grand Master prize at the Edgar Awards.

Linda Fairstein is the author of 20 novels about Alexandra Cooper, a fictional Manhattan prosecutor inspired by Fairstein’s real experiences as the chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s office’s sex crimes unit.

Fairstein also oversaw the prosecution of the young teenage boys who would become known to all the world as the Central Park Five: the black and Hispanic children who were wrongly convicted in a grisly 1989 rape case.

It was the former achievement that, in the eyes of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), merited one of the highest honors her genre has to offer: The prize of Grand Master at the Edgar Awards. It was the latter — not only her involvement at the time of the prosecution, but her repeated insistence that the confessions of the boys were not coerced and her failure to apologize for her role in sending five innocent children to prison — that prompted several mystery writers, including last year’s Best Novel winner, to publicly call for the MWA to rescind Fairstein’s award.

Within a day, the MWA obliged. But their statement on the matter was curiously worded. It did not mention the Central Park Five at all, referring only to a vague “controversy” and claiming that the MWA Board “was unaware of Ms. Fairstein’s role in the controversy” when she was selected, along with the promise that its members would be “reevaluating and significantly revising its procedures for selecting honorary awards in the future.”

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For Steph Cha, an author and critic who wrote an essay decrying the selection of Fairstein for the L.A. Times, the MWA’s statement isn’t 100 percent credible. “Is it fully believable that they didn’t know this was part of her background when it’s the first thing that comes up when you Google her or look at her Wikipedia page?” she asked. “I find it very surprising that none of the board members supposedly knew about this. I feel like this must have been something that was known within the community, even if it wasn’t regularly discussed.”

The phrasing, too, is one of eliding responsibility. “‘Controversy’ is a word that doesn’t admit any guilt or fault,” Cha said. Still, she understands their perspective. “They were trying to thread the needle, because there are definitely going to be people who are upset about this. Because they perceive Linda Fairstein as some kind of victim. I think it also would have been disingenuous if they’d been like, ‘Shame on you, Linda Fairstein!’… Obviously this was not a board that was deeply troubled by Fairstein’s past a week ago.”

It was Attica Locke, whose Bluebird, Bluebird took home 2018’s top prize, who first “begged” the MWA to reconsider Fairstein’s award. On Wednesday, Locke, who is a writer on Ava DuVernay’s upcoming Netflix Central Park Five miniseries, described Fairstein as “almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.”

For years, the Central Park Five maintained that they were coerced by the authorities into incriminating themselves. In December 2002, the men were exonerated after DNA and other evidence found by the Manhattan district attorney matched none of the five men — but did match Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist who confessed to acting alone in the 1989 assault. The D.A., Robert M. Morgenthau, asked that their convictions be vacated. The men were exonerated and, in 2014, received a settlement of about $40 million from New York City.

The Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise — were once smeared in the media as a violent pack of dangerous thugs. They have since come to occupy a new position in the public consciousness as some of the most high-profile victims of the racism that still permeates every facet of the American criminal justice system, proof that hot hatred pumps through its every artery.

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But Fairstein, Locke wrote, “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.”

In fact, just four months ago, Fairstein was still insisting that the Central Park Five’s confessions were not coerced. Her piece, “In Defense of the Central Park 5 Prosecution,” was published shortly after “the city released thousands of pages of internal law enforcement documents from  the original Central Park Five investigation — some never previously made public — that reinforced the decision in 2002, based on DNA evidence, to overturn the convictions for all five defendants, who had confessed to the crime,” as the New York Times reported.

“I would have a lot more sympathy for [Fairstein] — I would even find this award acceptable — if at any point since 2002 she had publicly declared some level of remorse,” said Cha. Instead, “she has steadily maintained that she did nothing wrong and she maintains their guilt. We can’t forgive her for something she hasn’t asked for forgiveness for, and she hasn’t.”

Following Locke’s tweets, Cha wrote her essay about Fairstein and the Edgar Awards in the Los Angeles Times. Fairstein, Cha wrote, “shouldn’t be the toast of a black-tie literary gala — she should be notorious.”

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In her article, Cha revealed that she was (as the MWA Board says they were) “clueless” about Fairstein’s history until she saw Locke’s tweets. Though she’s been “entrenched in the mystery world” since the publication of her first book in 2013 and has edited the crime section of the L.A. Review of Books since 2015, Cha wrote that the industry “gossip” never included Fairstein. “I find it disturbing that I never heard a word about Fairstein’s history.” She went on:

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 Master” is a good idea.

It’s impossible to know for sure if the MWA Board really didn’t know about Fairstein’s past, or if they knew but just didn’t think it mattered very much. They wouldn’t be the first to make that assessment. As Cha tweeted, Fairstein was recently the subject of a New York Times story, “a puff piece last September about her wall decor.” In the Times piece, as in the MWA press release, there is no mention of the Central Park Five. Fairstein is referred to only as “a sex-crimes prosecutor turned crime novelist.”

Fairstein’s success as a fiction writer has relied upon this exact level of interest in her work as a prosecutor: a cursory mention of her job title with exactly zero details. As writer and editor Ron Hogan tweeted, “Fairstein’s popularity—certainly her marketability—was directly related to her career as a sex crimes prosecutor; the mystery community eats that ‘front line experience’ stuff up with a spoon, and, despite nagging questions, the Central Park Five verdicts were widely accepted.”

So how does someone like Fairstein achieve this degree of success in the first place? “I think it’s a lot easier to ignore something like this if you’re also white,” Cha said. The crime-writing community is still far from diverse; the more homogenous any group is, the greater its blind spots will be. When Cha’s debut came out in 2013, the mystery scene “was much whiter than it is even now. There has been some progress towards inclusion over the last few years even, but that’s pretty new.”

Another significant factor: “Crime fiction is a pretty conservative genre, because. in the most basic sense of the word, it relies on stories about restoring order and catching criminals,” Cha said. “We as a crime community [and] the readers of our genre tend to side, kind of thoughtlessly, with the prosecution.” Aside from this particular flare-up around Fairstein, Cha said, that sensibility “plays a role, probably, in [Fairstein’s] popularity.”

In her essay, Cha wrote that “tacit approval is one thing, of course; the Grand Master Award is another.” But the latter is the cumulative result of the former. Casual acceptance of Fairstein probably seemed small to each individual who rolled with it. But piece by piece, that approval added up to an award — just as the pushback to Fairstein’s selection, voiced by one writer at a time, resulted in its rescission.

This is one of the highest honors that exist for mystery writers,” Cha said. “It’s not something that most writers have… It’s a huge honor, and no one is entitled to something like that.”

As for Fairstein and her defenders, Cha said, “I think whenever these controversies flare up, people are always like, ‘Have some sympathy. Innocent until proven guilty. No one wants to be judged by their worst actions.’ But you know who is judged by their worst actions? Every criminal defendant. The Central Park Five didn’t even do those actions. I guess I’m not that concerned that she lost an award, you know? It’s not like she’s going to prison.”