By Anna Merlan
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Zealot. Crusader. Probably not labels that former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crimes Unit Linda Fairstein would use to describe herself. Her preferred image is more likely the jacket-copy version of her career used to tout her bestselling mystery paperbacks (usually accompanied by an ultra-blond, airbrushed photo), which describes Fairstein as the "famed" prosecutor best known for her involvement in trying the "Preppie Murder" and Central Park jogger cases. But that might not sell books these days.
Following a confession to the Central Park attack by imprisoned serial rapist Matias Reyes, whose DNA links him to the brutal crime, the jogger case seems to be cracking open to reveal prosecutorial failures. Worse, this appears to be the third flub of a major case from the glory days of a prosecutor who was once a Clinton administration candidate for United States Attorney General and who is still considered by some a contender to replace current district attorney Robert Morgenthau should he retire.
The first case to come apart was that of the former gastroenterologist Patrick Griffin, who was convicted in 1996 of oral sodomy on a sedated patient during a colonoscopy and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. His conviction was overturned in 1998 and he was acquitted in retrial in 2000 after judges ruled that crucial evidence was withheld. After a retrial, he was acquitted, but not before losing his medical license, which he has yet to regain.
Then came Oliver Jovanovic, the Columbia University microbiology Ph.D. candidate, dubbed the "cybersex" attacker, who was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for kidnapping and sexually torturing a Barnard undergraduate. After he served nearly two years of his prison term, an appeals court overturned his conviction in 1999, again saying that crucial evidence was withheld during the trial that could have shown Jovanovic and his accuser had a consensual sadomasochistic relationship, or that she simply fabricated the story. Morgenthau dismissed the case before a pending retrial in 2001.
As for the five men who were convicted in the Central Park case as teens and literally grew up in jail, Morgenthau says he may vacate the charges because evidence of a previous rape by Reyes two days before the jogger attack should have been presented in court. But the accused are holding out for the results of a reinvestigation now being conducted by his office, in hopes that a declaration of innocence will wipe their names from all public records.
The men in all of these cases, who were convicted despite the existence of exculpatory evidence, still see Fairstein and her minions as either zealots or headline seekers, pursuing verdicts that would appease the outraged public. Jovanovic thinks Fairstein was also making literary hay from her cases.
"Each time one of these cases occurred, her books probably went flying off the shelves," says Jovanovic. "She used what happened in that unit to make money, and that is wrong." After all, her Alexandra Cooper mystery series is about a hard-nosed woman prosecutor. While reviews never accuse her of great writing, and some complain of the "heavy-handed" use of shoptalk, she earned, according to The New York Times, $2.5 million in sales by 1999. In the period between the 1989 jogger case and the 1998 cybersex trial, Fairstein produced two books, both of which were bestsellers.
Fouling cases, though, is still not part of her reputation. Even some former colleagues who admit a personal distaste for her tendency to flaunt her wealth say she is a skilled prosecutor with an eye for the truth. She has earned her stripes, having been one of seven women to join a staff of 175 prosecutors in 1972 after being told by former D.A. Frank Hogan that the job was too "tawdry" for females. For nearly 30 years as an assistant district attorney Fairstein taught rough-and-tumble cops and prosecutors to treat sex crime victims with respect, and she advocated for rape shield laws prohibiting grilling women about their sex lives in court. Oddly enough, before the Jovanovic and Griffin cases, Fairstein even took on the very politically incorrect position of criticizing false accuserswhich she describes in depth in her nonfiction opus, Sexual Violence.
"The question one might ask," says one attorney who asked not to be named, "is how she turned megalomaniac" after her younger years when she had "an unyielding zest for prosecution." According to several people close to the case, it was Fairstein's ego and her quest for fame that drove her to elbow Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ryan out of the Central Park case. Ryan had originally been assigned the case because the jogger was expected to die, but Fairstein pushed the sex crime angle of the case and her division got it. Ryan is also considered a likely candidate for the D.A.'s seat. "Prosecutors fight for the big cases, that's what they do," says another lawyer, shrugging off the competition between the two women. Other critics have said Fairstein was overly zealous about the Central Park case to save face after personally prosecuting the preppie murder case, which ended in a deadlocked jury followed by a plea-bargained manslaughter charge.