Law and Order: SVU fans might not want to learn this, but your favorite show is based on Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor who led the investigation and oversaw the prosecution of the now-Exonerated Five, labeled the “Central Park Five” by media.
As shown in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Fairstein (played by Felicity Huffman), was the head of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and oversaw the investigation and prosecution strategy which led to the five young boys giving false confessions, resulting in their wrongful convictions. While the boys were serving time in jail, Fairstein used her notoriety from the case to launch an entirely new side career as a crime novelist. Her turn as a novelist compelled her to write full-time and leave her post in 2002. Afterward, Fairstein continued writing novels, including mystery books for children.
One of Fairstein’s stints as an “expert” included providing insight to a certain up-and-coming show in Dick Wolf’s Law and Order franchise, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, otherwise known as Law and Order: SVU.
“Twenty years ago, while I was still leading what is now known as the Special Victims Unit, I had a call from Dick Wolf, creator of the Law and Order television series,” she wrote in an op-ed for USA Today in 2018. He was in pre-production of a spinoff that he called Law and Order: SVU. He wasn’t asking me to be a part of his team, but he was hoping I would spend time with two of his leading actors–Mariska Hargitay (Detective Olivia Benson) and Stephanie March (ADA Alex Cabot)–to explain our work. Not only did I enjoy that opportunity, but it was the start of two friendships I cherish to this day.”
The subheader for her op-ed reads: I inspired ‘Law and Order: SVU’ 20 years ago. Now I’m telling the story of how the pioneering ‘Real SVU’ pursued justice for sex-crime victims.
As jarring as it is to realize Fairstein was part of the inspiration behind the series, it’s even more jarring to realize how deep her friendship with Hargitay goes. As late as 2016, Hargitay was celebrating the release of Fairstein’s book, Killer Look.
— Mariska Hargitay (@Mariska) July 20, 2016
Shadow And Act reached out to NBCUniversal, but the network declined to comment on this story. We have also reached out to Wolf and Hargitay for comment as well, but have not heard back. Among Fairstein’s numerous resignations as of recent, one of them includes her position as a board member for Joyful Heart, a nonprofit for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence founded by Hargitay. Regardless of their opinions on the matter, karma is finally handing out justice to Fairstein, who still won’t issue an apology to the Exonerated Five for her mishandling of their case. Since the release of When They See Us, Fairstein has also resigned from her position on the Vassar College Board of Trustees after a petition of nearly 15,000 signatures called for her removal.
The former prosecutor has also resigned from the board of directors for the nonprofit Safe Horizon, the nation’s largest victim services nonprofit organization. TMZ reported that they were told “the animosity began when the CEO held a meeting on May 21 where nearly 100 directors were informed about the Netflix drama and Fairstein’s connection to it…some staffers didn’t even know Fairstein was on the board of directors, and when they found out tempers quickly flared. Many questioned why she was allowed on the board of an organization that mostly serves minorities.”
Fairstein has also removed herself from the nonprofit God’s Love We Deliver, which provides meals to people with HIV/AIDS and other types of illnesses. There has also been pressure put on booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble to stop selling her books. Even before When They See Us dropped, Fairstein was beginning to be rebuffed by the public, particularly after the release of the Ken Burns doc, The Central Park Five; last year, after several writers rose up against Fairstein, the Mystery Writers of America withdrew the lifetime achievement award they planned for Fairstein. According to the Guardian, the group released a statement saying, “MWA cannot move forward with an award that lacks the support of such a large percentage of our members.”
Despite all of the pushback, Fairstein still stands by her handling of the Central Park jogger case.
DuVernay told The Daily Beast that she reached out to those who participated in the case against the Exonerated Five, including Fairstein. “I informed them that I was making the film, that they would be included, and invited them to sit with me and talk with me so that they could share their point of view and their side of things so that I could have that information as I wrote the script with my co-writers,” she said. “Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate. I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this, but she tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with me, including approvals over the script and some other things. So you know what my answer was to that, and we didn’t talk.”
One of Fairstein’s lasting legacies is, sadly, one of NBC’s most popular shows. But now that you know the background of Fairstein and her work with Law and Order: SVU, can you watch it the same way?
Photo: Netflix, Wikimedia Commons, NBC