Ash-Blond Ambition

Prosecutor Linda Fairstein May Have Tried Too Hard

While Fairstein appears to have been seeking power, she has plenty already. In the D.A.'s office, she moved into an important role quickly, and continued to build on that over the years. She summers on Martha's Vineyard, where she has hobnobbed with the Clintons. She is married to the extremely wealthy and influential Justin N. Feldman, a major player in the Democratic Party who sits on the character and fitness committee of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division. Even one of the two attorneys appointed recently by the police department to independently review the Central Park case is a junior partner at Kronish Lieb Weiner & Hellman, where Feldman is a senior partner.

But those who accuse Fairstein of zealotry describe a passion that can go beyond maneuvering for power.

"She came bounding at me in the police station like some Joan of Arc crusader type," recalls Sharonne Salaam of the first time she encountered Fairstein, at midnight in the police precinct where her son was being held for the Central Park jogger attack. "I had never seen anything like it."

Fairstein believed she had her perps and, says Salaam, was willing to do anything necessary to prove it. Fairstein gruffly dismissed Yusef Salaam's aunt and threatened his mentor, Brooklyn federal prosecutor David Nocenti, in refusing to let them see the teen while he was being interrogated. According to both Sharonne Salaam and Timothy Sullivan's book on the case, Unequal Verdicts, Fairstein then called her husband to demand the home number of Nocenti's then boss, Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Andrew Maloney, so she could get the young attorney fired. According to court records, Fairstein even tried to block Sharonne Salaam from interrupting the interrogation, despite Sharonne's claims that Yusef was 15 and too young to be questioned without an adult. "They really wanted us to leave so they could complete their process," says Salaam. "At one point, I was hyperventilating and I asked for water and Fairstein said there was just no water in the building. It was very strange."

Fairstein's behavior seemed so outrageous that in the 1993 appeals decision on Salaam's case then appellate court judge Vito Titone specifically named her in his dissenting opinion and blasted the entire interrogation process. He recently told Newsday, "I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old's confession. . . . Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn't care. She wasn't a human."

Jovanovic had his own strange journey with Sex Crimes Unit prosecutors. He was kicked into a bizarre reality when Fairstein appeared at his arraignment, calling for bail to be set at $500,000, likening him to Ted Bundy and invoking images of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, saying Jovanovic had material about the murderer in his home. That evidence was never produced. Even stranger, Fairstein allegedly threatened to arrest Jovanovic's mother if she appeared at the arraignment, accusing her of destroying evidence. "I was half in shock during all of this," says Jovanovic, who believes Fairstein threatened his mother so that it would seem Jovanovic had no supporters at his arraignment.

The prosecutors' quest for convictions never wavered, even when there was no clear forensic evidence to prove any of these crimes. In the Central Park case, prosecutors never could link any of the five accused to DNA samples found at the scene. There was no physical evidence linking Jovanovic to his crime, and, in fact, while his accuser claimed she had been brutally attacked and left bleeding, there were only a few fading bruises later found. "If she [Fairstein] couldn't tell this was a false report, well, I am just shocked," says former New York City sex crimes detective John Baeza, who worked in defense of Jovanovic after leaving the force. Baeza said he had previously known Fairstein to be a "powerful woman" with "great judgment."

Griffin, the former head of internal medicine at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, who is now a researcher for a New Jersey pharmaceutical firm, wouldn't comment for this story, except to agree his ordeal was horrendous. But news accounts confirm that prosecutors were determined to prove his case despite an unusually large number of patients, physicians, and friends coming forth in his defense. They overlooked that the accuser had been angry with Griffin for refusing to testify for her in a civil landlord-tenant case. Prosecutors did, however, choose to take into evidence a tape secretly recorded by Griffin's accuser, who attempted to snag a confession. Prosecutors also advertised an 800 number on the radio and in the New York Post for information about Griffin.

Fairstein would not return calls to the Voice and has commented little since Reyes confessed except to say there was not a rush to judgment in the Central Park case. Calls to a number of former prosecutors were not returned, and the D.A.'s office refusedcomment.

Though Fairstein retired from the D.A.'s office last spring, many attorneys agree that she still has devotees both in that office and among detectives. And according to some close to the case, the rivalry between her and Ryan, who is said to believe the Central Park Five were not linked to the crime, still exists.

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