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Netflix Must Face Central Park Five Prosecutor’s Defamation Suit

Aug. 10, 2021, 2:33 PM

Five scenes from Netflix’s series about the “Central Park Five” potentially defame former sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, a New York federal judge said, advancing her lawsuit against the streaming service, director/producer Ava DuVernay, and writer/producer Attica Locke.

Fairstein was chief of the sex crimes prosecutions unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office during the investigation and prosecution of the five Black teens convicted of the beating and rape of Trisha Meili, a White woman who was jogging in Central Park in 1989.

Their convictions were vacated after the confession of a man whose DNA matched a sample found near the victim.

They brought civil claims against the city and individual defendants, which settled for $41 million in 2014.

In May 2019, Netflix released a four-part dramatization of the arrest and prosecution of the five, called “When They See Us.”

Fairstein alleges that the series falsely portrays her participation in the prosecution and depicts her uttering comments that are “racist and unethical.”

She challenged 11 scenes, but Judge P. Kevin Castel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Monday said Fairstein has plausibly alleged a claim as to five.

Those scenes depict Fairstein as orchestrating acts of misconduct, including the withholding of exonerating evidence from defense counsel, the existence of “tapes” showing that she “coerced” confessions from the Five, an instruction to police officers not to use “kid gloves” when questioning suspects, and directing a racially discriminatory police roundup of young men in Harlem, the court said.

The average viewer could conclude that the scenes have a basis in fact and don’t merely reflect the creators’ opinions about controversial historical events, which are privileged against claims of defamation, the court said.

After a high-profile legal career, Fairstein remained in the public eye as a mystery writer and public speaker.

She alleges she was publicly vilified following the release of “When They See Us,” resulting in damage to her reputation and forcing her resignation from non-profit organizations.

She also says her publishers terminated her contract and her literary agents dropped her as a client.

Fairstein is played in the series by Felicity Huffman, who was implicated in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal.

Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP represents Fairstein. Cardinal Law PA and Dentons US LLP represent Netflix, DuVernay, and Locke.

The case is Fairstein v. Netflix, Inc., 2021 BL 298971, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:20-cv-08042, 8/9/21.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Steinberg in Washington at jsteinberg@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com