Netflix's When They See Us was on of the biggest and best dramas for the streaming service in 2019, but it seems the real-life drama isn't over, as the show has just been hit with a lawsuit by one of the real-life key players connected to the events.
The show was co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th), tells the true story of one Latino and four African-American teenagers who were wrongly convicted of the rape and assault of a woman in New York City in 1989.
Trisha Meili, 28 at the time, was jogging through Central Park when she was attacked and left for dead.
Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana spent between five and ten years inside a youth detention centre. Korey Wise was tried and sentenced as an adult, before being sent to Rikers for 12 years.
Not only was there zero physical evidence tying them to the crime, the police interrogation took place without their guardians and lasted for around seven brutal hours.
Matias Reyes, a man who was already serving time in prison for multiple rapes and murder, later confessed to the crime, DNA evidence confirming that.
The five men, before referred to as the Central Park Five, now christened the Exonerated Five, were cleared of all charges, but only after they had served the vast majority of their sentences. They also successfully sued the city of New York for $41m.
There were numerous players involved in the case, one of whom was Linda Fairstein, portrayed by Felicity Huffman in the drama.
Fairstein was promoted to chief of the Manhattan district attorney's sex crimes unit in 1976, later called the special victims unit.
The focus was violent crimes committed against women and children, hence her involvement in this particular case.
When They See Us isn't kind to Fairstein. It shows her disregarding the fact that there was no evidence linking the five teens to the attack on Meili, instead pursuing the wrongful convictions like a dog with a bone.
Following the release of the series, Fairstein, who is a published crime novelist and was still a practising lawyer, as well as a sex crimes expert for several publications, received significant backlash and subsequently deleted her social media accounts.
In 2018, she was given a lifetime-achievement award by the Mystery Writers of America, but that was rescinded due to her role in the Central Park case. She also stepped down from several boards, and both her literacy agency and book publisher parted ways with her.
She is now suing the streaming giant and DuVernay, arguing that she has been portrayed "in a false and defamatory manner in nearly every scene in the three episodes in which she appears".
The series, according to Fairstein, showcases her "as a racist, unethical villain who is determined to jail innocent children of colour at any cost", adding: "The portrayal of Ms Fairstein in the film series was deliberately calculated to create one, clear and unmistakable villain to be targeted for hatred and vilification for what happened to The Five."
The document goes on to list several actions that Fairstein claims she played no part in, including:
- Unlawfully interrogating unaccompanied minors.
- Calling for a roundup of "young, black thugs".
- Referring to people of colour as "animals".
- Directing NYPD detectives to coerce confessions from unaccompanied minors who are beaten while in custody.
- Suppressing DNA evidence.
- Manipulating a timeline of events to pin the rape of the jogger on The Five.
- Forcing her colleague to prosecute a meritless case against The Five.
"Ms Fairstein took none of these actions," concludes the document.
But Netflix are standing by DuVernay and When They See Us.
In a statement, the company branded Farstein's lawsuit "frivolous" and "without merit", adding: "We intend to vigorously defend When They See Us and Ava DuVernay and Attica Locke [co-writer], the incredible team behind the series."
DuVernay previously told The Daily Beast that she contacted Farstein when she was making the series, giving her an opportunity to contribute.
"I reached out to Ms Fairstein, I reached out to […] a lot of the key figures on the other side. I informed them that I was making the film, that they would be included, and invited them to sit with me and talk with me so that they could share their point of view and their side of things so that I could have that information as I wrote the script with my co-writers."
But that meeting never took place.
"Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate," she added. "I don't know if I've told anyone this, but she tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with me, including approvals over the script and some other things.
"So you know what my answer was to that, and we didn't talk."
The lawsuit is ongoing.
When They See Us is available to stream now on Netflix.
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