Fairstein resignation sparks debate on College culture, previous inaction

In a new Netflix miniseries titled “When They See Us,” actress Felicity Huffman plays Linda Fairstein, former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit. The series dramatizes the story of the Central Park Five, a group of young Black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted for an assault and rape in Central Park. Director Ava Duvernay’s account claims that on the night of the crime in 1989, police initially prepared to charge the teens only with unlawful assembly. But Huffman’s Fairstein quickly concluded otherwise, and the teens became primary suspects. “Every young Black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman who is fighting for her life,” Huffman’s Fairstein tells NYPD officers, sending them up to Harlem to “stop every little thug you see.”

The five boys—arrested, convicted and eventually exonerated 13 years later through DNA evidence—all claim that Fairstein helped orchestrate the coercion of their confessions. Fairstein denies this accusation, and still opposes the overturning of the verdict.

As of early Tuesday morning, June 4, Fairstein sat on Vassar’s Board of Trustees. In a letter published that afternoon, President of the College Elizabeth Bradley announced that Fairstein had resigned from the Board, effective immediately.

Fairstein joined the Board in 2008 as an alumna from the Class of 1969. According to Vassar’s website, she is a legal expert on crimes against women and children, and has penned around 20 crime novels, many of which have gone on to become bestsellers. Her advocacy and work has earned her dozens of awards, including the Federal Bar Council’s Emory Buckner Award for Public Service, Columbia University’s School of Medicine Award for Excellence, Anti-Violence Project’s “Courage” Award, Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year Award, and New York Women’s Agenda Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Ms. Fairstein felt that, given the recent widespread debate over her role in the Central Park case, she believed that her continuing as a Board member would be harmful to Vassar,” wrote Bradley in her letter. “The events of the last few days have underscored how the history of racial and ethnic tensions in this country continue to deeply influence us today, and in ways that change over time.”

Fairstein’s position with Vassar first came into question when Mari Robles ’21—galvanized by “When They See Us”—started an online petition to remove Fairstein from the Board. At the time of Fairstein’s resignation, the petition had over 13,000 signatures. At the time of this publication, it has over 22,000.

“I was so nervous, I was shaking when I hit the publish button on the petition,” said Robles, who was wary of potential backlash given her status as a first-generation, low-income student. “We saw the numbers going up and up and up, and I was really surprised initially about how people were sharing it so quickly and how much attention it is getting now.” The outcry against Fairstein has been subject to national media coverage, drawing the attention of CNN, NBC, CBS, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and Variety, among others. Another petition to boycott her books has garnered over 110,000 signatures.

Robles, who spoke to The Miscellany News prior to Fairstein’s removal, has been interviewed by a number of news outlets about her creation of the petition. She explained: “There will never be a full remedy for what Fairstein has done, given that she was on the Board for so many years. Even all the press she is getting now doesn’t compare to what these five boys had to go through.”

Following this resurgent interest in Fairstein’s past, and the appearance of Robles’ petition on Sunday morning, Bradley posted a message on Vassar’s website on the evening of June 2. The letter read in part, “A petition has circulated over the weekend regarding a member of the Board of Trustees, and calls for the Board member to be removed. We take such concerns from students and alumnae/i very seriously, and understand the significant issues involved here.”

Regardless of newfound concerns, the exonerations of the Central Park Five have been well-known to both the public (Ken Burns directed a 2012 documentary on the case) and to Vassar administration for over a decade. For instance, the College turned some attention to Fairstein’s role after the publication of a Miscellany News article in October 2017, which compiled short biographies of Vassar’s Trustees. News Editor Laurel Hennen Vigil ’20 and reporters Dylan Smith ’20 and Clark Xu ’18 wrote: “While working for the Manhattan DA, Fairstein oversaw the infamous 1990 ‘Central Park Jogger’ case, which resulted in the false conviction and imprisonment of five young men, dubbed the ‘Central Park Five.’ Fairstein has been accused of rushing the prosecution. During the investigation, Fairstein reportedly barred one of the defendants from seeing or speaking with friends and family members. The defendant’s convictions were vacated in 2002. Fairstein left the District Attorney’s office the same year.”

Following the article’s publication, some of the bios—which the College described to The Miscellany News as overly negative in tone—required some factual corrections. Although Fairstein’s remained unchanged, it was included amongst bios that were in question by Trustees and administrators, demonstrating an awareness of her history in the case.

According to Robles, who has received many messages from students and alumnae/i after posting the petition, perceptions of previous inaction on the part of the Board and administration have been a point of contention for the broader campus community. “Other students have expressed online a lot of anger that the Board probably knew about her background [in the Central Park Five case], and even in her [official Trustee] bio, intentionally omitted it,” Robles said. “This isn’t really a just a problem with Vassar, it is with every Predominantly White Institution in America, that has people on their Board of Trustees, or faculty, or administration, that have these backgrounds of racial discrimination and injustice.”

Prior to Fairstein’s resignation, VSA Vice President Jenny Luo ’20 had been planning a meeting for students on and near campus to organize a protest at Fairstein’s forthcoming 50th reunion. Luo said, “Sure, it’s surprising that Linda Fairstein was a part of the trial, and that she is a person that stands between the Black and brown community. But that is also what our institution is built upon. Is it that much of a surprise, that someone who graduated decades ago is like this?”

While Fairstein has remained relatively quiet in response to the backlash since deleting her Twitter following several heated exchanges and the trending of #CancelLindaFairstein., She did, however, speak with The Daily Beast, taking direct issue with the Netflix miniseries, calling it a “basket of lies,” and adding that director Duvernay was “putting words in my mouth that I never said in Oliver Stone fashion.” Fairstein contests that the Netflix account does not show an accurate depiction of police proceedings: “The police do the investigations and they don’t let us [the prosecutors] in until they finish what they’re doing.”

In an interview with the New York Post, Fairstein explained why she stepped down from several roles on Boards, including that of Safe Horizon, a non-profit organization from victims of abuse and violent crime. She said, “I do not want to become a lightning rod to inflict damage on this organization, because of those now attacking my record of fighting for social justice for more than 45 years.”

Fairstein’s timely resignation absolved the Board from either heeding or dismissing the voices of students and alumnae/i, brought forth by the petition and, subsequently, the President’s Office. When asked about the administration’s change in response following the October 2017 article versus the renewed outcry following Robles’ petition, Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll wrote in an emailed statement, “President Bradley asked the Chair of the Board to review the concerns raised in the petition by our students and Alumnae/i, in order to be responsive to them. Neither the Board nor President Bradley asked Ms. Fairstein to resign, it was Ms. Fairstein’s decision.”

8 Comments

  1. Linda Fairstein has been subjected to a modern-day witch-hunt, prompted by the Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us. It is hardly surprising that the film’s claims of racial injustice have galvanized online petitions, including Vassar’s Robles’, to quickly condemn Ms. Fairstein, formerly the darling of feminists and the downtrodden because of her lifelong fervent advocacy against the sexual assault of women.
    __________________________
    The petitions’ authors and the tens of thousands of signatories are outraged by what is a work of fiction, not a documentary. DuVernay utilizes imagined dialogue, invented character traits and selective editing of the actual videotaped confessions of the Central Park Five to create a fantasy that was immediately accepted as truth by those wishing to indict “every Predominantly White Institution in America.”
    _________________________________
    There are no new facts in DuVernay’s fabrication of the actual events. All the evidence has been hashed and rehashed before. There has always been a large body of evidence for the Central Park Five’s participation in the brutal attack on Tricia Meili, including the videotaped confessions. No one involved in the investigation has substantiated the film-maker’s claims and people who were present at the time have said that the District Attorney’s office acted appropriately, an opinion also held by the Courts.
    __________________________________
    DuVernay’s craft is essentially a propaganda film, successfully resulting in a sustained outcry against Ms. Fairstein on social media. Vassar has been complicit in her tarring and feathering. Whether she has left its Board of Trustees willingly or having been forced to do so, her reputation has been unjustly besmirched and her years of service to Vassar have been quickly forgotten and unappreciated. The internet mob has won an undeserved victory, one that is both morally repugnant and dangerous.

    • Thank you, Trevor. In a few short paragraphs you have ripped the mask off this farce masquerading as a social justice campaign. It is, just as you say, a modern day witch hunt with no purpose other than the destruction of the life and legacy of a woman who has spent her whole life working for actual justice for victims of sexual assault. Vassar’s failure to stand up to the online mob is a travesty and sends exactly the wrong message.

    • “There has always been a large body of evidence for the Central Park Five’s participation in the brutal attack on Tricia Meili, including the videotaped confessions. ”

      Other than the videotape confessions, could you point us the “large body of evidence” that ties them directly to Tricia Meili attack ?

  2. As Vassar alumni, we were appalled to see Linda Fairstein pushed to resign from her position as trustee and even more so because the campaign was instituted by a Vassar student. Taking their cue from the Cultural Revolution, the online social media mob that signed this and similar petitions have effectively erased Ms. Fairstein’s groundbreaking accomplishments as a pioneer in the handling of sexual assault cases and are well on their way to making her a “non-person” who must be stripped of all honors previously bestowed and whose books must be banned.
    *****************************
    The organizers of this campaign were reacting to a fictionalized, one-sided Netflix series (replete with obviously made-up dialogue), which glosses over, distorts, and ignores matters of public record. The judge overseeing the trial held a six-week evidentiary hearing during which the defense attorneys vigorously argued that the defendants’ confessions were coerced, and found those claims meritless in a lengthy and detailed opinion. After Matias Reyes confessed in 2002 to having raped the jogger and claimed to have acted alone, a panel investigated whether there had been prosecutorial or police misconduct. Not only did the panel find no misconduct but it also concluded that, based on the evidence that had been obtained and presented at trial, the five defendants most likely had been involved in assaulting the jogger prior to Reyes’ raping her. Eric Reynolds, an African American policeman who was a lead officer in the case, is also adamant that the confessions were not coerced. He too is convinced that the original defendants participated in the assault on Trish Meili, as well as on the several other persons attacked that night.
    *****************************
    Not only did the Netflix series ignore crucial facts and evidence in the actual record but it used made-up dialogue and other artifices to portray Ms. Fairstein as a cartoonishly overzealous prosecutor who was motivated by racism. Ms. Fairstein’s attempts to defend herself have only enraged the online media mob even more — how dare Ms. Fairstein not admit she is a racist! Again, as in the Cultural Revolution, the only permissible response for those caught in the righteous mob’s crosshairs is to confess to everything, including the evilness of one’s soul.
    *****************************
    Social media, of course, is not designed to encourage thoughtful analysis but to pander to emotions. As Vassar alumni, however, we would have expected Vassar students to prefer the former over the latter, even in such a contentious and, for many, personal issue as the impact of race on law enforcement and judicial proceedings. Indeed, given how fundamental this issue is for our American society, the need to act on reason, rather than rage, is all the more critical. How many of those signing the petition against Ms. Fairstein “went back to the source” to read the extensive record in this case before joining in the campaign to obliterate Ms.Fairstein? Very few, if any, we suspect.
    *****************************
    We also would have expected Vassar to refuse to acquiesce in the campaign to erase Ms. Fairstein. Vassar could and should have asked the student leaders to meet with Ms. Fairstein and allow her to explain to them where and how the Netflix series got the facts wrong, giving them the opportunity to come to an informed opinion, one way or the other.
    *****************************
    Instead, Vassar issued a callous statement accepting Ms. Fairstein’s resignation as trustee that did not even thank her for her service nor acknowledge her many achievements and accomplishments as a crusader for victims of sexual assault.
    *****************************
    Vassar has not only done a disservice to an esteemed alumna, it has told its students that trial by Netflix is preferable to trial by law. Is this really the world in which we want our future generations to live?
    *****************************

    Victoria Balfour ‘77*
    Mark Banschick ‘78
    Lynn Benswanger ‘75
    Laurie Josephs ‘78
    Melinda Maidens ‘74
    Megan Tallmer ‘73
    *****************************
    *Note: Victoria Balfour covered the Central Park case for People magazine in 1989-1990 and attended the trial of Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana

    • It’s pathetic irony to see some familiar names as signatories to this letter. They write
      “we would have expected Vassar students to prefer the former over the latter, even in such a contentious and, for many, personal issue as the impact of race on law enforcement and judicial proceedings. Indeed, given how fundamental this issue is for our American society, the need to act on reason, rather than rage, is all the more critical. ”

      Oh what high sounding words. But wait. Just a few years ago there were a group of Alumni who created a group “Fairness to Israel” and went about smearing students and even professors who questioned Israeli policies. They shrieked that Vassar Campus was then filled with anti-semitism and some of their supporter even stated that Jewish students were no longer safe on campus.

      That was a time in fact when Jewish students kicked out the Hillel and started an Open Hillel. The main reason being the speech codes and restrictions about discussing Israeli policy. Yet some of these signatories screamed in horror about the supposed antisemitism they had witnessed.

      At that time I repeatedly asked them to point to a single instance where a Prof targeted a Jewish students for his/her beliefs. Predictably no response except more antisemitism claims.

      Now they claim that Ms Fairstein was subjected to a mob justice !!! As they say, Karma is …..

  3. ” Ms. Fairstein’s groundbreaking accomplishments as a pioneer in the handling of sexual assault cases”. Really ?

    https://www.npr.org/2017/11/15/564310240/times-reporters-describe-how-a-paper-trail-helped-break-the-weinstein-story

    “And it’s interesting to see in that situation there was a whole team that swooped in to help Harvey fight that in a counterattack effort. There were private investigators who were dispatched to basically dig up dirt on her. There were stories planted in the tabloids to basically disparage her background. There were high-profile attorneys who stepped up to Harvey’s side, including Linda Fairstein, the former sex crimes prosecutor here in Manhattan, who was willing to facilitate introductions to the current sex crimes prosecutor who was handling the case. And within weeks that case was dead.”

    • A simple Google search demonstrates that the decision not to prosecute Weinstein was made by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Numerous articles attest to this. In fact, New York Governor Cuomo ordered an investigation into Vance’s failure to prosecute Weinstein. It was suspended because of the current criminal case into Weinstein.

      https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2018/08/29/probe-hold-manhattan-district-attorney-handling-2015-weinstein-case/1135530002/

      “In March, Cuomo ordered then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate Vance’s decision not to prosecute Weinstein on charges that he groped an Italian model in 2015.

      Vance came under sharp criticism for the decision at the time, and the pressure on him only grew after October 2017 when nearly 100 other women starting coming forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, coercion or rape dating back decades.”

      • https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/17/weinstein-ambra-battilana-case-hidden-nypd-district-attorney

        “New York detectives investigating a 2015 sexual assault complaint against Harvey Weinstein physically “hid the victim” from staff working for the Manhattan district attorney, reportedly fearing she would be treated unfairly and the case dropped.”

        “NYPD investigators told the magazine they believed they had a strong case against Weinstein after an Italian model, Ambra Battilana, alleged that she had been sexually assaulted.”

        “But the detectives also feared that Vance, who had dropped a sexual-assault case against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, would be reluctant to prosecute another powerful man.”

        Wasn’t Ms. Fairstein involved in the decision to drop the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. So lets get this straight. The case against DSK was dropped against cause an African immigrant supposedly had inconsistencies in her story. But the case against the CP5 was prosecuted even if there were massive inconsistencies in their stories and no rape evidence but they were prosecuted for rape.

        Incidentally, take a look at Ms. Fairstein’s lapel pin. The irony…

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