Law in Popular Culture

Mystery writers group withdraws award to former prosecutor because of controversial case

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A novelist’s role as a supervisor during the controversial prosecution of the so-called Central Park Five came back to haunt her when a mystery writers group revoked an award it had given her only days before.

Prosecutor-turned-novelist Linda Fairstein received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America last Tuesday. The honor lasted only two days, at which time the group rescinded the award, report the Washington Post, the Guardian and the Associated Press.

The group said in a statement that it “cannot move forward with an award that lacks support of such a large percentage of our members.”

Fairstein has written 20 novels featuring a sex crimes prosecutor named Alexandra Cooper.

The outcry among the mystery group’s members concerned Fairstein’s role as a supervisor during the prosecution of five African-American and Hispanic teens in the rape and beating a Central Park jogger in 1989. Fairstein was the chief of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time. The case was prosecuted amid fears of a rising murder rate in New York City and a media portrayal of “wilding” youths in the park.

The convictions were overturned in 2002 after a convicted serial rapist confessed to the crime and said he acted alone. DNA backed up his story.

Fairstein didn’t try the case, nor did she investigate it, she said on Twitter. But she was present during interrogation of the teens. Four of them confessed. In a letter to the New York Law Journal in July, Fairstein said the confessions were not coerced, and the questioning was “respectful, dignified, carried out according to the letter of the law and with sensitivity to the young age of the men.”

She wrote the letter in response to a New York Law Journal article in which lawyers for the wrongly convicted teens complained that the first batch of newly released documents from the case portray their clients in a bad light.

The five men reached a $40 million settlement with the city in 2014, the New York Times reported at the time. The defendants later denied taking part in the rape, although three men acknowledged during parole hearings that they were among a group of teens in the park, and some of the group members assaulted other people in the park, according to the Times’ reading of the transcripts.

Fairstein maintained on Twitter that the teens were involved in the other attacks. “Talk to me about the other 6 men viciously attacked in the park that night, which these and others admit doing,” she tweeted.

Fairstein’s 16th book, Terminal City, was one of the three finalists for the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, which is partly sponsored by the ABA Journal. She also was on a panel of judges for the Harper Lee contest in 2011 and 2012. She spoke with the ABA Journal about her writing in an August 2015 podcast.

When the Mystery Writers of America award was announced, Fairstein tweeted that the news was “a thrilling surprise.” She released a new statement on Facebook after the award withdrawal. “I am extremely disappointed, of course, to have this great award-designation revoked so hastily,” she wrote. “I thank MWA for the initial honor and for the joy it inspired, which can never be revoked, and I am happy to enthusiastically support the new Grand Master.”

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