By Jared Chausow
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"Why are those people out there yelling?" an irked, graying white woman stage-whispered to a friend in an Upper West Side Barnes & Noble. "You know, it's the jogger case. Those boys," replied her pal. Outside the store that freezing night, a small group of activists handed out leaflets about the Central Park case. That's the case in which five African American and Latino teens were jailed for years in the brutal rape of a white jogger only to be exonerated last month after someone else confessed to the crime.
"Linda Fairstein shouldn't profit off children she sent to jail," the protesters shouted. They were awaiting Fairstein, the former Manhattan assistant district attorney who oversaw the conviction of the Central Park 5 (CP5), and was scheduled for a reading of her new mystery novel. Riding her fame as prosecutor, she published several bestsellers.
Fairstein, clad in a lavender lambskin coat, swept past the crowd, at first looking not at all shaken, but eyes widening in concern once inside the store. Store staff, police, and press agents surrounded her. A manager warned her of a few "infiltrators" inside. Upstairs a group of 30 latte-sipping bookworms were waiting to discuss her new book, The Bone Vault. In hushed tones they tut-tutted the protesters.
That attitude is, at best, galling to many who are waiting to see if the miscarriage of justice will have consequences for prosecutors and police, including Fairstein. (Monday, an internal police report on an investigation into detective and prosecutor conduct in the case was released, and it will be heard in the City Council Thursday.) Fairstein insists the investigation concludes the five are guilty and the police probe was "brilliant."
Taking the podium with a brave smile, Fairstein remained confident as she explained the premise of her bookeven as it became clear protesters were moving in. Silently, a new crowd of activists walked down aisles toward the podium, or stood in Fairstein's view. Store staff and undercover cops moved stealthily to block all paths to Fairstein. As she cheerfully rattled on, Sharonne Salaam, the mother of one of those convicted, walked down the middle aisle staring at her and took a front row seat. A few minutes later, Angela Cuffee, sister of one of the CP5, circled and took a place.
"Do you have any comments regarding the turnaround in the Central Park investigation?" asked a reader. He later said Fairstein should be accountable for wrongdoing, though "the city was probably safer because those boys were in prison." Fairstein shot back, "They were guilty. This was one of the fairest and most well-conducted investigations."
Fairstein's fans were eager to talk books. During an anecdote about an Inuit family taken from their home and put on exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, a hand went up. "A lot of people felt you did the same thing to those five boys," said Yusef Salaam of the Amsterdam News. She sidelined him: "I would be happy to make an appointment with you to talk about the case."
Later, someone asked, "Don't you think it's disgraceful that you are responsible for incarcerating innocent men?" Fairstein again denied their innocence. Then similar questions snapped from all over the room. Cops, staff, and security descended on the crowd, and in some bizarro replay from the segregated South, white cops pushed black protesters out. "Linda Fairstein has blood on her hands," a woman yelled as cops moved her. "She's a criminal and a liar too," bellowed a man.
Sharonne Salaam, who sat quietly through the scuffle, was told to leave by a store manager. When she didn't move, he nudged her up, backed by a guard. "I have said nothing to her," she said calmly, moving regally as they led her out. "Why are you doing this?" J.C., a store manager, said: "You have death threats against Ms. Fairstein. I want you out of my store." A fan mumbled, "This was not the right place to do this." A passerby balked,"If it were your child, any place would be the right place." People faced off, bickering about the case.
Loud, slow clapping ushered the author back to the mic, where she said: "Every day for a year and a half, Elizabeth Lederer (the case prosecutor) and I were called Jew bitch. . . . It was an unpleasant way to do a job." Her Upper West Side audience sighed and groaned. "Let's move on now," one grumbled.
"Speculation Gone Wilding: Jogger Theories Defy the Realities of Reinvestigation" by Dasun Allah
"Marked as the Enemy: Central Park Five Members Speak" by Dasun Allah