New York

Why the Central Park 5 Prosecutor Is Fighting Netflix

Good morning. Today we’ll look at a ruling in a defamation lawsuit over a 2019 Netflix series about the Central Park Five case. We’ll also get details on the indictment against Senator Robert Menendez and his wife.

Linda Fairstein, in 2017.Credit…Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

A federal judge has rejected a move to dismiss the defamation lawsuit filed by the former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein over the way she was portrayed in a 2019 Netflix series about the Central Park Five case.

Judge P. Kevin Castel denied a motion by Netflix and Ava DuVernay, who directed the four-part series “The Way They See Us” and was one of its writers. The ruling clears the way for Fairstein’s lawsuit to go to trial unless it is settled first.

Fairstein led the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office in 1989, when five Black and Latino teenagers were charged with the rape of a white female jogger in Central Park. They were convicted in part because of false confessions obtained by the police.

When the true assailant confessed in 2002, their rape convictions were overturned; and in 2014, they won a $41 million settlement from the city. One of the five, Yusef Salaam, ran for a City Council seat in Harlem and won a contested primary in July.

“They Way They See Us” presented Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman, as intent on seeing the five teenagers convicted, regardless of inconsistencies that pointed to their innocence.

Judge Castel quoted DuVernay as saying that she decided to make “When They See Us” “because the official version of events had portrayed the Five as ‘an animalistic “wolf pack” of rapists,’ whereas she saw them as children who became ‘honorable, decent men.’” DuVernay, the judge wrote, said she “did not set out ‘to target’ or ‘cancel’” Fairstein. But he added that she came to have “‘no doubt whatsoever’ that Fairstein was central to the investigation and prosecution, was ‘morally and legally culpable’ for the case’s outcome and that ‘she crossed moral and ethical lines and breached the public trust.’”

Fairstein, Judge Castel wrote, maintains that she “lacked the authority to instruct N.Y.P.D. members on interrogation techniques or to direct them to round up suspects, and that she never did so.”

The judge said there was evidence that “by opting to portray Fairstein as the series villain who was intended to embody the perceived injustices of a broader system,” the series “reverse-engineered plot points to attribute actions, responsibilities and viewpoints to Fairstein that were not hers” and were not reflected in “the substantial body of research materials” assembled in preparing the series.

“Notably,” the judge wrote, “Fairstein does not complain that she was defamed through the use of a fictionalized composite character. Her claims are directed to words and deeds attributed to her by name.”

Fairstein’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, said by email that the decision “makes clear that there is not a stitch of source material to support the defamatory portrayal of Ms. Fairstein in the series.” He added that when the case goes to trial, “the evidence will again show that, fueled by their animosity, the defendants imputed conduct to Ms. Fairstein that has no relationship to the truth.”

A Netflix spokesman defended the program and those who prepared it. “We are proud of ‘When They See Us’ and fully support the incredible team behind the series including Ava DuVernay, Attica Locke and our colleagues at Netflix,” the spokeswoman said by email. “We look forward to presenting our defense to the jury.” A lawyer representing DuVernay and Attica Locke, a co-writer, did not respond to a call for comment; DuVernay did not respond to a call to her office in Los Angeles.


Expect showers and fog during the day, with temps in the low 60s. At night, prepare for a chance of rain and a low in the upper 50s.


In effect until Saturday (Sukkot).

The latest Metro news

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Local news

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  • Migrants: The city began notifying migrants in July that they would soon have to reapply if they wanted to stay in shelters. For some who have reached the deadline, the future remains uncertain.

  • A complicated clash: Video of a white woman taken by a Black shopper at a New Jersey mall laid bare the power of online outrage.

  • Noisy neighbor: An extraordinarily loud air-conditioner atop the Kingdom of Bhutan’s permanent mission to the United Nations has plagued a 43rd Street apartment building for years.

  • Times Insider: Our reporter, Katherine Rosman, set her sights on James Dolan, whom everyone thinks they know.

ICMYI: The Menendez indictment

Credit…Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In a 39-page indictment, federal prosecutors said that Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey accepted bribes — a car, expensive exercise machines, mortgage payments and more than $480,000 in cash “stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets and a safe” that was discovered during a court-authorized search of Menendez’s house last year.

Some of the money was “found inside jackets” with Menendez’s name on the front.

But perhaps the most surprising detail in the indictment unsealed on Friday was that Menendez had a stash of ill-gotten gold — more than $100,000 worth of gold bars — and suddenly took an interest in the price of that precious metal. He typed “how much is one kilo of gold worth” as he searched the internet, the indictment said.

The indictment described a far-reaching web of corruption involving aid and weapons sales to Egypt and efforts by Menendez to persuade state and federal prosecutors to go easy on associates. An American-Egyptian businessman with connections to Egyptian military and intelligence officials referred to Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as “our man.”

The businessman, Wael Hana, was accused of giving Menendez’s wife, Nadine, what prosecutors called a “low- or no-show job” on his company’s payroll. Hana was indicted along with the Menendezes and two other businessmen.

The indictment quoted text messages from Nadine Menendez bragging about the senator’s influence. In March 2020, she texted an Egyptian official: “Anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen.”

She arranged for that official — who she referred to as “the general” — to meet with Menendez a few days later, the indictment said. The subject was a $4.5 billion hydroelectric dam being built by Ethiopia that many Egyptians believed would cut into their water supplies. The indictment said the senator soon wrote to Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state at the time, urging him “to significantly increase the State Department’s engagement” in negotiations about the dam.

Menendez maintained his innocence. Lawyers for Nadine Menendez and two of the other defendants also denied the charges. A representative for the fifth defendant, Jose Uribe, a former insurance agent who worked in the trucking industry, could not be reached for comment.

By Saturday, nearly every major Democratic figure in New Jersey had called on Menendez to resign, including Gov. Philip Murphy. That was a dramatic contrast to 2015, when Democrats largely rallied around Menendez after his first indictment. One difference is that a replacement would be appointed by the governor, who in 2015 was Chris Christie, a Republican. Murphy is a Democrat.



Dear Diary:

It was a hot summer day. A woman in her 50s got on a fairly crowded noontime 5 train at Fulton Street wearing orange polka-dot pinup shorts, a white tank top and huge, plastic, ’70s-style sparkly earrings.

She held onto a pole and stared at her phone as though things were going badly. Her hands trembled as she typed out a message with her thumbs, and she stumbled on her five-inch heels when the train lurched into the Brooklyn Bridge stop.

At Union Square, a seat opened up next to a woman in her 20s who was reading an e-book.

The younger woman had corkscrew curls dyed vibrant copper and was wearing a similarly summery outfit: wispy, pale blue sundress with strappy white sandals. Silver bracelets jangled on her bare arms.

As the older woman lowered herself into the tight space, the young woman looked her straight in the eye.

“I love those earrings,” she said.

The older woman’s face transformed with joy.

“I was just wondering if there was any way to tell you that I appreciate your whole entire look!” she said.

The two women shared a deep laugh, then shook it off, looked back down at their phones and rode on in silence.

At 42nd Street, the younger woman stood up. She turned back as the doors opened and put her hand on the older woman’s shoulder, startling her.

“I really hope you have a great day,” she said.

“Well, you started it,” the older woman said, before returning to her phone with a little smile playing at the corner of her lips.

— Milda M. De Voe

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Bernard Mokam and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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