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Netflix series about Central Park 5 renews 'mob mentality' accusations

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Once celebrated by many, Linda Fairstein, the former prosecutor turned mystery book author, now fights for her professional life and reputation for her leading role in the 1990 prosecution of the so-called Central Park Five.

She's not the only player in this real-life drama whose role deserves a new look.

A week after the May 31 premiere of filmmaker Ava DuVernay's new Netflix miniseries "When They See Us," which reenacts the notorious New York case, the bestselling Fairstein was dropped abruptly by her book publisher. She also was pressured to resign from prominent board positions amid a rising tide of calls to have her other past cases re-examined.

The four-part series reenacts the prosecution that Fairstein helped to lead against six teens -- five black and one Hispanic -- who were wrongly convicted in the brutal assault and rape of 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, a white woman who was jogging in Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989.

Before The Wall Street Journal published a Fairstein op-ed in her own defense late Monday, she pushed back against the series with a forceful metaphor in her board resignation to the chairman of her alma mater, Vassar College:

"The truth about my participation can be proved in the pages of public records and case documents," she wrote. "But that has not been apparent to those embracing the mob mentality that now dominates social media, any more than it was considered by the rashly irresponsible filmmaker."

"Mob mentality?" She should know. We would be hard-pressed to beat the mob mentality that was whipped up by police, prosecutors, politicians, news media and others who were caught up in a feeding frenzy around one of the most publicized crimes of the 1980s.

There was the mob mentality of police and prosecutors who, as DuVernay's series depicts them, were so hard-pressed to win convictions in the case that they overlooked evidence that could have led to the real perpetrator of the crime. There also was a mob mentality in the news and commentary media -- I won't try to absolve myself here -- who were attracted by the compelling narrative of low-income, inner-city black and Hispanic kids invading the world below 110th Street to raise havoc on the rich in the class-resentment world of Tom Wolfe's 1980s bestselling satire, "A Bonfire of the Vanities."

Other mayhem occurred that night, including a black woman in Brooklyn who was beaten, raped and thrown off the roof of a four-story building. But there was little room in the major media outlets for any narratives that failed to fit the story of a city under siege.

 

And, let us not forget how the mob mentality was too attractive for the mirror-kissing, publicity-hungry real estate developer Donald Trump to ignore. He bought full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for the young offenders to be executed. The five, whom DuVernay prefers to call the "Exonerated Five," spent between six and 13 years behind bars before they were freed in 2002 -- after DNA evidence and a confession tied convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes to Meili's attack. The New York Supreme Court vacated the Central Park Five's convictions and, in 2014, settled a civil case with the five now-grown men for $41 million.

Yet, characteristic of his always-right, no-apologies stance, Trump, like Fairstein, has not wavered on his insistence that the five defendants are guilty, despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary, as recently as late 2016.

Defendant Yusef Salaam, who was 15 years old at the time Trump called for his execution, described Trump as "the firestarter" in an interview with the Guardian just a few months before Trump won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. "Common citizens were being manipulated," Salaam said, "and swayed into believing that we were guilty."

If anything, his persistent get-tough pose enhanced the populist appeals of his later presidential campaign, even though the high crime and crack cocaine plagues of the 1980s declined. The Central Park Five, now exonerated, will never get their lost years back.

But the rest of us have learned some valuable lessons about jumping to conclusions -- and joining the "mob mentality." I'd like to think so anyway.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2019 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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