Scenes in Netflix's Central Park 5 Miniseries Misrepresented Head Prosecutor, Judge Says

A defamation lawsuit filed by a former Manhattan prosecutor against Netflix and the creators of a 2019 drama miniseries about the Central Park Five case is allowed to move forward, a judge decided Monday.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel wrote in an opinion issued in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that the defamation lawsuit was "granted in part and denied in part," with five scenes in When They See Us leaving the door open for a defamation argument in their portrayal of former prosecutor Linda Fairstein.

Fairstein was the head of the Sex Crimes Prosecutions Unit in the New York County District Attorney's Office during the time a woman jogger was beaten and raped in Central Park. The incident, which occurred in the spring of 1989, led to the arrests and convictions of five teenagers from Harlem. Those five individuals were later exonerated after another man confessed to his role in the attack.

Castel noted Fairstein has argued she was not the lead prosecutor in the case and served "principally as a technical adviser" to the assistant district attorney assigned to the case, Elizabeth Lederer. Fairstein's legal team wrote in its complaint that "[n]early every portrayal is false and defamatory" in the scenes of the miniseries in which Fairstein is depicted.

Linda Fairstein defamation lawsuit Netflix
A judge said Monday a defamation lawsuit against Netflix can move forward in connection with scenes that portrayed former prosecutor Linda Fairstein in a 2019 documentary about the Central Park Five case. Above, Fairstein attends Safe Horizon's 2014 Champion Awards at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on April 30, 2014, in New York City. Noam Galai/WireImage

In introducing his opinion, Castel wrote the series portrayed Fairstein "as a central villain" who "quickly concludes that the Five are responsible for the attack, and is thereafter portrayed as a zealous, win-at-all-costs prosecutor."

According to the judge's opinion, defamation cannot be argued in all of the scenes that portray Fairstein. "Certain scenes alleged to be defamatory merely show routine and prosaic activities that lack a plausible defamatory meaning," Castel wrote.

However, Fairstein's legal team could argue defamation in five scenes.

"These scenes depict Fairstein as orchestrating acts of misconduct, including the withholding of evidence, the existence of 'tapes' showing that she 'coerced' confessions from the Five, an intention not to use 'kid gloves' when questioning suspects, and directing a racially discriminatory police roundup of young men in Harlem," Castel wrote.

He continued, "The average viewer could conclude that these scenes have a basis in fact and do not merely reflect the creators' opinions about controversial historical events."

Castel's decision allows Fairstein's defamation lawsuit to move forward against Netflix, director Ava DuVernay and writer Attica Locke, all of whom are listed as defendants in the case who earlier moved for Fairstein's lawsuit to be dismissed.

After Castel released his decision, Netflix expressed confidence in its position in a statement shared with Newsweek.

"We'll continue to vigorously defend When They See Us and the incredible team behind the series, and we're confident that we'll prevail against Ms. Fairstein's few remaining claims," the statement said.