Mystery novels can be morally dubious. They often use horrific incidents to entertain and sometimes to titillate their readers. We can continue to enjoy them without too much compunction, however, knowing that the events are made up. So what happens when someone who supervised a real-world miscarriage of justice is being honored for her work in crime novels? Can we separate the facts of her life from the fiction she creates?
In a November 27 piece for the LA Times, novelist and attorney Steph Cha decried the Mystery Writers of America’s selection of crime novelist Linda Fairstein for a 2019 Grand Master Award at their annual Edgar Awards Gala. Cha did not object to Fairstein’s work as a writer, but her career as a sex crimes attorney in New York City.
“She shouldn’t be the toast of a black-tie literary gala — she should be notorious,” Cha wrote.
Prior to writing the bestselling Alexandra Cooper series of novels, about a sex crimes prosecutor, Fairstein, as head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, oversaw the case which led to the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teenagers accused of raping a white female jogger in 1989. New DNA evidence and the confession of a serial rapist exonerated the Central Park Five in 2002, but not before they served between six to 13 years in prison.
Cha lambasted the Mystery Writers of America, of which she herself is a member, for neglecting to acknowledge the Central Park Five case in their announcement of Fairstein’s selection. She wasn’t alone in her outrage.
Author Attica Locke, whose book “Bluebird, Bluebird” won this year’s Edgar award for best novel, began the discussion of Fairstein’s suitability for the Grand Master award. In a six-part Twitter thread, Locke asked the organization to reconsider.
.@EdgarAwards As a member and 2018 Edgar winner, I am begging you to reconsider having Linda Fairstein serve as a Grand Master in next year’s awards ceremony. She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five. 1/— attica locke (@atticalocke) November 27, 2018
Cha writes that Locke, like herself, was unaware of the company they kept in Fairstein until recently when Locke began work on a Netflix dramatization on the Central Park Five case for Netflix.
“Her presence among us should be the scandal of every conference — it probably would’ve been earlier if there had been more crime writers of color when the Five were exonerated in 2002,” Cha wrote. “How many of us have been polite to her on accident because the rest of us were polite to her on purpose?”
Fairstein has never apologized for her role in the Central Park Five verdict, but she defended herself against Locke’s accusations on Twitter.
“Ms. Locke - I was neither the prosecutor nor investigator in the case you mention. I was certainly NOT the person who ‘singlehandedly spearheaded’ the investigation,” Fairstein tweeted. “Why don’t you and I have a civilized conversation, so I can refresh you with the facts?”
Fairstein did not serve as the prosecutor on the case, but she did, in her capacity as head of the Sex Crimes Unit, oversee it.
Locke and Fairstein traded comments on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, neither yielding in their arguments. At 3:28 PM Fairstein signed off, writing “good night”
“I think the ‘good night’ here is the sun setting on all the years you’ve gotten away with not being held to account for your actions in the court of public opinion,” Locke replied.
The Mystery Writers of America also responded to Locke’s objection yesterday with a short statement on their website: “We are taking seriously the issues raised by Attica Locke. Our Board is going to discuss these concerns as soon as possible and make a further statement soon.”
Should Linda Fairstein’s Involvement In The Central Park Five Case Keep Her From A Mystery Writing Award?
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.