A judge ruled on Monday that Netflix must face a defamation claim from former prosecutor Linda Fairstein over her portrayal as an unethical racist in the 2019 series “When They See Us,” which is based on the unjust imprisonment of the Central Park Five.
Five moments in the series may slander Fairstein, according to a New York federal judge, justifying the lawsuit against Netflix, director and producer Ava DuVernay, and writer and producer Attica Locke, according to Bloomberg Law.
While running in Central Park in 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old Caucasian woman, was battered and raped. Fairstein was the chief of the New York County District Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes prosecutions unit at the time, and he oversaw the prosecution of five Black and Latino teenagers in Harlem in connection with the incident.
The Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five, were between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were wrongly arrested and spent anywhere from five to thirteen years in jail before being released.
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise filed a civil suit against the city and other defendants in 2014, and the case was resolved for $41 million, despite the city admitting no culpability.
The men, who are now in their 40s, were the subjects of a Netflix series that premiered in 2019. Netflix may have defamed Fairstein in many sequences that indicated she withheld exonerating evidence from defense counsel, pressured confessions, and oversaw a racially discriminatory police roundup of Black and Latino youths in Harlem, according to U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel in Manhattan.
“The typical viewer could believe that these sequences are based on facts and do not just reflect the creators’ ideas about contentious historical events,” Castel said. According to the judgment, a “defamatory statement of truth” differs from “pure opinion,” which is “not actionable under our laws since utterances of opinion, as opposed to assertions of fact, are deemed privileged and, no matter how disagreeable, cannot be the subject of a defamation case.”
In the series, Felicity Huffman plays Fairstein, who is quoted as saying, “All we need is one of these little sh-ts to tie this whole thing together” in a conversation with prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), who had raised concerns about the teens’ conflicting statements and a lack of physical evidence.
“We’ll continue to forcefully defend ‘When They See Us’ and the brilliant crew behind the series, and we’re certain that we’ll succeed against Ms. Fairstein’s few remaining allegations,” Netflix said in a statement after Castel dismissed some of the claims in the action.
Fairstein objected to 11 sequences, but Castel found her defamation charges credible in only five of them.
Her publisher dropped her in 2019 amid the backlash from the series, despite the fact that she had written 24 books, including 16 New York Times bestselling crime thrillers. The former prosecutor resigned from at least two non-profit organizations as the #CancelLindaFairstein movement gained traction on social media.
Fairstein’s attorney, Andrew Miltenberg, said he was “very delighted” with the judge’s decision, adding that the series had incorrectly depicted his client as “engaged in coercive and discriminatory conduct in order to establish a case against innocent young men of color.”