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Netflix, Ava DuVernay settle 'When They See Us' defamation case

The streaming giant described as "ludicrous" any attempt to paint the resolution as a win for plaintiff Linda Fairstein, who prosecuted the Central Park Five in 1989.

Actors Caleel Harris and Marquis Rodriguez with Ava DuVernay on the set of the 2019 miniseries "When They See Us". (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

Netflix has settled a defamation case involving its Emmy Award-winning 2019 miniseries “When They See Us,” which told the story of the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers imprisoned for—and later exonerated of—a Manhattan-area rape in 1989. 

The prosecutor who sought their conviction, Linda Fairstein, sued the streaming network, Ava DuVernay, and writer Attica Locke in 2020, saying the show misrepresented her actions as New York City prosecutor.

The settlement brings to an end nearly five years of litigation in the lawsuit, which was set to go to a jury trial in June. The resolution does not involve any payment to Fairstein—though last year, U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel denied the defendants’ bid for a summary judgment in their favor.

Per the negotiations concluded this month, Fairstein has withdrawn her complaint, while Netflix will highlight a disclaimer in the show and donate $1M to the Innocence Project, which advocates for wrongly convicted individuals nationwide (and is led by a Black Catholic in Christina Swarns).

“I believe that Linda Fairstein was responsible for the investigation and prosecution of the Central Park Jogger case that resulted in the wrongful conviction of five innocent Black and Brown boys,” DuVernay said in a statement on June 4, posted to her now-deleted Twitter account.

“As the head of the Manhattan Sex Crimes unit, Linda Fairstein was in the precinct for over 35 hours straight while the boys were interrogated as adults, often without parents present. Fairstein knew what was going on inside those interrogation rooms and controlled who entered, blocking one of the mothers from being with her 15-year-old son.”

Fairstein is depicted in the show as a racist villain, ordering New York police to perform overarching sweeps of Black neighborhoods in New York following the Central Park assault and coercing the Central Park Five—four of whom were Black—into false confessions.

Actress Felicity Huffman as Linda Fairstein in "When They See Us". (Netflix)

The former New York City Prosecutor, now 77 years old, sued Netflix for $8M after being dropped by her book publisher and asked to resign from a number of nonprofit boards. She described this month’s settlement as vindication of her description of the inaccuracies of “When They See Us.” 

“Documents and testimony in the public record since that motion was filed, and recently unsealed, demonstrate that the scenes that were the subject of my lawsuit were “invented” by the filmmakers, and that the defendants intentionally and viciously targeted me when marketing and promoting the Series,” Fairstein said in her own statement.

“This is what this case was all about – not about “winning” or about any financial restitution, but about my reputation and that of my colleagues. It was about setting the historical record straight that the villainous caricature invented by the defendants and portrayed on screen was not me.”

Lawyers representing the defendants have hit back at Fairstein’s claims, however, describing as “ludicrous” any attempt to paint the settlement as a favorable outcome for the plaintiff.

“Ms. Fairstein caved completely on the eve of trial, faced with the prospect of cross examination before a New York jury as to her conduct and character. Having spent millions of dollars in attorney’s fees, Ms. Fairstein walked away with no payment to her or her lawyers of any kind”

DuVernay’s statement echoed those sentiments, describing Fairstein’s decision as a refusal to go before a jury and defend her claims of defamation.

“It’s a phenomenon that often happens with bullies,” the Catholic-raised filmmaker said. “When you stand up to them, unafraid, they often take their ball and go home.”

The 2020 “When They See Us” case was one of several recent legal challenges for Netflix—including an earlier defamation suit concerning “When They See Us,” from the developers of the interrogation technique used in the Central Park Five case and depicted in the show. That case was dismissed in 2021.

In 2021, the media giant was also sued over the viral 2020 series “The Queen’s Gambit,” which allegedly featured an inaccurate portrayal of the Georgian chess grandmaster Nona Gaprindashvili. The real-life figure sued the network for $5M and settled for an undisclosed amount in 2022.  Just this month, a Scottish woman sued for defamation over her depiction as a stalker in the 2024 miniseries “Baby Reindeer.” She is seeking damages of $170M.

Following the settlement of the “When They See Us” case, fans and supporters of DuVernay spoke out in her defense, calling the resolution a win for filmmakers, other artists, and free speech. Some also connected the 1989 case to other prominent figures who vilified the wrongly accused Black teenagers.

“In light of this news, everyone should watch or re-watch “When They See Us” in Fairstein’s honor while remembering Trump called for these young men to be put to death and is still lying about them to this day,” wrote Davidson College professor Issac Bailey, who specializes in race, media, child welfare, and criminal justice.

“I remain stunned by Linda Fairstein’s cowardice and the depth of her malignant narcissism,” added co-defendant Attica Locke.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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