Netflix, Central Park Five prosecutor settle defamation lawsuit

By Thomson Reuters Jun 4, 2024 | 2:31 PM

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Netflix settled a defamation lawsuit brought by best-selling author and former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein over her portrayal in a 2019 crime series about the Central Park Five case.

Tuesday’s settlement averts a trial over Fairstein’s portrayal in the series “When They See Us,” which had been set to begin on June 10 in Manhattan federal court.

Fairstein will receive no money in the settlement, but Netflix will donate $1 million to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to free wrongfully convicted people, the company said.

Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Attica Locke, “When They See Us” dramatized the story of five Black and Hispanic teenagers who spent five to 13 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in the April 1989 rape of a white jogger in Central Park.

Another man confessed to the crime in 2002.

Fairstein, 77, had run the Manhattan District Attorney’s office sex crimes unit when the 28-year-old jogger, later identified as Trisha Meili, was attacked.

She alleged defamatory scenes in the series included suggestions she withheld evidence, coerced confessions, and ordered a mass police roundup of young Black men.

Fairstein lost her publisher and resigned under pressure from several boards due to backlash from the series.

In a statement, Fairstein said she was pleased with the contribution to the Innocence Project, and said getting money for herself was not a concern.

A disclaimer that some characters and events may have been altered for dramatic purposes will be moved to the start of episodes from the closing credits.

“It was about setting the historical record straight that the villainous caricature invented by the defendants and portrayed on screen was not me,” Fairstein said in a statement.

Netflix confirmed the settlement in a joint statement with DuVernay and Locke, who were also defendants.

In a ruling last year allowing the lawsuit to go forward, U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel found evidence that Netflix, DuVernay and Locke “reverse-engineered plot points” to depict Fairstein as a villain emblematic of broader problems in criminal justice.

The defendants had said the portrayal was protected by the First Amendment, and Fairstein’s lawsuit threatened filmmakers’ ability to dramatize controversial, real-life events.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Daniel Wallis)