It’s curious to see so-called feminists work to “cancel” a woman who has spent decades championing women and trying rapists, but this week they did just that — setting their sights on former prosecutor and victims rights advocate Linda Fairstein.
“Canceling” people is a digital-age, organized boycott aimed at denying someone a livelihood after they supposedly commit a sin. To that end, the mob forced Fairstein to resign her position at Safe Horizon, the country’s largest victim services organization, and at other groups. They also sought boycotts of her mystery books, and she has been forced to delete her social media accounts to shield herself from the firestorm.
Fairstein was the supervising prosecutor in the Central Park Five case, in which a jogger was raped, rocking the city in 1989. Now, a new Netflix documentary miniseries, “When They See Us,” depicts Fairstein as racially profiling and coercing confessions from the Hispanic and black teenagers she prosecuted. The teens wound up serving between six and 13 years before another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime.
Certainly enough evidence to justify the charges. For starters, there were confessions from the men, including such statements as: “We got her on the ground. Everybody started hitting her and stuff . . . Then we got, each — I grabbed one arm, some other kid grabbed one arm and we grabbed her legs and stuff. Then we all took turns getting on her, getting on top of her.”
Despite the claims of the Netflix flick, judgments about the validity of those confessions are far from universally held. Michael Armstrong, who served on a panel re-investigating the case, noted in The Wall Street Journal in 2014 (when the city settled a wrongful-conviction lawsuit by agreeing to a $40 million payout to the five defendants) that there’s no evidence the confessions were coerced.
Fairstein herself stated unequivocally that “the confessions were not coerced,” adding that “there were weeks of a [pretrial] Huntley hearing in which the voluntariness of the statements was explored, and in a 160-page opinion by Judge [Thomas] Galligan, all were ruled admissible.”
But in the age of “canceling,” there are good guys and bad, and Fairstein is deemed one of the latter. Jezebel shrugs off the firestorm against Fairstein as “a very small comeuppance in exchange for five young men’s decades of false imprisonment.” Pajiba, a feminist website, uses the same term, “comeuppance,” to describe results achieved by the online attack mob.
Truth is, far too many sexual predators get away with their crimes, and Fairstein spent her life fighting against that. Fairstein headed up the first-of-its-kind sex crimes unit in Manhattan for 26 years, a unit that inspired “Law & Order SVU.”
She was a pioneer woman in courts that were male-dominated and in a society and legal system that did little to achieve justice for victims of sexual crimes. She won numerous awards for her work.
Moreover, there’s no crisis of false convictions. Surely a dramatized Netflix show doesn’t have the heft to override hard facts and drive personal attacks, especially against people doing their jobs faithfully.
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In a 2002 New York magazine piece on the trial, Chris Smith noted that Fairstein fought to get the Central Park jogger case because “the jogger was definitely the victim of a sex crime, and if she lived [she] would need a compassionate prosecutor.”
Indeed, in nearly every postmortem about the case, aside from the Netflix take, Fairstein consistently comes off as a passionate advocate for women and victims, and her decades of work with Safe Horizon is evidence of that passion.
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Feminists cheering Fairstein’s “cancellation,” while at the same time lamenting the sorry state of the criminal justice system for sexual assault victims, should understand how their activism against her will hurt future victims. There are few women who fill the role Fairstein did, or who can step in with the institutional knowledge and power to make an impact in the criminal justice system on behalf of victims as she did.
This isn’t just about Fairstein disappearing from her role as a victims advocate. It’s about seeing that justice is done, that prosecutors — indeed, people in all walks of life — won’t recoil at doing their job for fear of the mob.