Sex crime and the city
HISTORY repeats itself, sighs Linda Fairstein, her resounding voice edgy with despair. "It's such a clich, but s so true," she acknowledges wearily, explaining that she is mystified as to why so many vulnerable young women today seem oblivious to this simple fact, a fact that could save their lives.
Once tipped to become chief of the New York Police Department – a job for which she used to joke she would kill – Fairstein is talking about sex crime and the city and one of the many notorious cases she prosecuted as Manhattan's most celebrated and crusading assistant district attorney, that of the so-called Preppie Killer.
In 1986, Robert E Chambers Jr raped and strangled 18-year-old Jennifer Levin during what he described as "rough sex" in Central Park. The defence tried to portray Levin as promiscuous, reading out her "sex diaries" in court. When the jury appeared to be headed for a mistrial, Chambers was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter.
"I would have considered it a finer hour, certainly, if he had been convicted of murder, though everything we did could not bring Jennifer back to life, whose death I believe to have been prolonged and painful," says Fairstein, of Chambers, who served 15 years for the crime, but who is now back in prison facing multiple charges of drug sale and possession and assaulting the police officers who arrested him last October.
Now a best-selling thriller writer, Fairstein was a principal advocate in the 1970s of New York's archaic "rape shield" law, which prohibited in most cases what had long been a common defence practice in rape and sexual assault cases – exploring the sexual history of victims to suggest promiscuity. In the wake of the Chambers case, she successfully lobbied for a similar law in rape-homicide prosecutions.
If all of this sounds like an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, then that's because the excellent TV series is based on the ground-breaking work and distinguished career of Fairstein, who pioneered the use of DNA evidence to identify sex offenders. Her unique Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit (SCPU) was established in 1974 for victims of domestic, sexual and child abuse and she was its director for more than 25 years.
Indeed, Fairstein's alter ego in Law & Order – Assistant DA Alex Cabot, whose initials are a homage to Fairstein's own fictional heroine, Alex Cooper – is played by the icily glamorous Stephanie March, who shadowed Fairstein to see how her work was done.
"The Chambers case was definitely one of my most high-profile trials," says the expensively groomed lawyer, once known as "Hell on Heels" by the New York tabloids, although today she's warm and friendly over lunch in one of New York's smartest restaurants.
The murder of Levin, like so many shocking sex crimes this elegant 58-year-old blonde handled in the course of her distinguished 30-year career, has frequently come back to haunt her, most recently with the 2006 killing of a young criminal justice student, Imette St Guillen, by bouncer Daryl Littlejohn.
"This story was such a great tragedy," says Fairstein, who retired in 2002 in order to write a series of crime novels about Cooper, a blonde sex crimes prosecutor in New York. ("She's younger, richer, taller, slimmer and blonder than me," jokes Fairstein.)
The latest novel in the series – her tenth – is the gripping Killer Heat, based on the gruesome murder of St Guillen, who was brutally raped, tortured and murdered, her naked, mutilated body dumped on the city's Belt Parkway.
While the story was making sensational headlines across the States, Fairstein could not escape the bitter irony that the bar from which St Guillen was abducted was run by the Dorrians, the same family that owned the bar in which Levin met her murderer.
"Imette went out for the evening for birthday drinks with a girl friend, who left her to go home early. Imette went on alone to another bar, The Falls, where she met Littlejohn," notes Fairstein, who campaigned for laws to recognise and specifically target date rape and drug-related rape. "Tragically, all of the lessons about underage drinking, hooking up in bars and friends not watching out for friends all seemed to repeat themselves in the Littlejohn case. All of these issues are, sadly, somehow even more topical in the 20 years since Chambers killed Jennifer Levin.
"I honestly don't know how we get this across – I know that in Britain you have a similar problem with young girls binge drinking, who therefore are most certainly not looking out for each other. I simply don't know how we can solve this – apart from constantly spelling out the horrific things that can happen to young girls when they go to bars alone," says Fairsten, whose famously aggressive and driven courtroom skills had her winning more seemingly hopeless cases than Perry Mason, thus making her a living legend in the New York criminal justice system.
Bill Clinton, a family friend and a fan of her thrillers, even shortlisted her for the job of attorney general when he was president. Perhaps if Hillary makes it to the White House, the call may come again? Despite the many silver-framed photographs of the Clintons and her family in the opulent Upper East Side apartment she shares with her husband, veteran lawyer Justin Feldman, Fairstein pooh-poohs the idea, although she and her husband are dyed- in-the-wool Democrats vociferously campaigning for Hillary.
Certainly, Mrs Clinton could not have a more persuasive supporter since Fairstein is also the woman on whom ballsy, Hollywood prosecutors, such as those played by Greta Scacchi in Presumed Innocent and Kelly McGillis in The Accused, were modelled. Meanwhile, Law & Order: SVU, which Fairstein believes deals with sensitive issues with dignity, has given her some of her most valued friendships.
March and Mariska Hargitay – the multiple award-winning actress who plays NYPD Det. Olivia Benson – have become close through their tireless involvement with various victims' charities. "Both of them could step away from the issues the show raises and support any charitable causes they wanted," she says. "But they've really embraced the needs of victims of violence.
"They've joined me on the board of Safe Horizon – America's largest and best advocacy organisation – which is a great platform for us to join hands and speak publicly about violent sex crime and its solutions. I'm also on the board of Mariska's own foundation, Joyful Heart, which raises awareness and provides resources for sexual assault survivors. They bring enormous star power to this issue – and it's an absolute passion for all three of us."
These days Fairstein devotes her time to writing, as well as regularly advising the NYPD on cold cases. She also does pro-bono work for prosecutors, police and forensic experts across the country, helping sex-crime victims, such as a high-flying businesswoman who was recently being mercilessly stalked in New York.
An English Literature major from the elite, single-sex Vassar College, although she went on to study law at the University of Virginia, Fairstein was told at her job interview for the DA's office, in the early Seventies: "This job is too tawdry for a woman of your background."
At that time no woman had ever prosecuted a trial for murder in New York. "There were 170 lawyers in the DA's office and only seven women," she says. "Today there are more than 600 and half are women. When I started out, blood and guts and the courtroom were seen as no place for a woman. This was a world in which the women were always victims, never the prosecutors."
In the 1970s, of every 1,000 reported rapes in New York only 18 resulted in convictions – in Britain, one in three resulted in a conviction. That figure here is now one in 20, although the number of reported rapes has increased in the past 20 years from under 2,000 to more than 12,000.
Adds Fairstein: "These figures give me no comfort. By the time I retired, of every 500 or so cases the SCPU investigated, about 100 resulted in prosecutions. Although New York's violent crime rate has dropped dramatically and the city has its lowest murder rate in four decades, that certainly doesn't mean that rape has been banished."
It is the establishment of DNA data banks, enabling cold cases to be revisited, that has given Fairstein the satisfaction of seeing justice done in literally thousands of unsolved crimes from her watch.
She tells of one such case in Killer Heat, using her own considerable knowledge and expertise in investigating the legal, emotional and ugly realities of rape to great effect. Fiction, she remarks, is one way of solving all those unsolved cases that have stayed with her.
"Most rape victims do recover with the right treatment and after-care," she explains. "I've had so many healthy, vibrant women show up years later – especially at book signings and readings – and they'll say: 'Those were my darkest days, but I survived.' That's what I loved about my job – the knowledge that, despite all the atrocities, I could make a tremendous difference. I could turn to a woman who had been to hell and back and tell her that her rapist was behind bars."
Nonetheless, since her retiral her imagination has been liberated, although she misses the collegiality of her job – for instance, she would choose which detectives would investigate which crimes. "Although I still miss the cut-and-thrust of the courtroom every day, I can fly now; I'm no longer bound by facts.
"I'm still waiting, though, for art to imitate life – I've yet to get my Law & Order cameo!"
Killer Heat by Linda Fairstein is out now, npublished by Little, Brown at 14.99.
Famous female prosecutors seen on screen
GRETA SCACCHI IN PRESUMED INNOCENT
IN THIS 1990 film Greta Scacchi plays Carolyn Polhemus, a District Attorney who is brutally murdered. Her colleague Rusty Sabich (played by Harrison Ford), with whom she had been having an affair, begins to investigate the case, but finds that all the evidence points towards him as the murderer.
REESE WITHERSPOON IN LEGALLY BLONDE
LAW student Elle Woods, played by Witherspoon, manages to get her client acquitted of murder in this fluffy-but-sharp 2001 comedy, crushing one witness's testimony thanks to an acute observation about her perm. The pink-clad sorority girl later modestly tells reporters: "The rules of haircare are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would have known."
KELLY MCGILLIS IN THE ACCUSED (above)
MCGILLIS plays district attorney Kathryn Murphy in the hard-hitting and controversial 1988 film. She represents a client named Sarah Tobias, played by Jodie Foster, who is brutally gang-raped by three men in a bar. Murphy sets out to prosecute not only those guilty of the rape, but also the men who stood by and cheered them on. Foster won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar as Best Actress for it.
PORTIA IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
HERE, Shakespeare's brave young heroine Portia disguises herself as a man called Balthasar, in order to defend Antonio in court, outwitting Shylock who wants the pound of flesh he is owed. In her powerful speech, Portia says he may take his pound of flesh, but not a drop of blood. Portia has been played by many actresses, including Sybil Thorndike and Maggie Smith.
JULIA ROBERTS IN THE PELICAN BRIEF
ROBERTS plays the ambitious law student Darby Shaw. When two Supreme Court justices are assassinated, Shaw discovers that while both of them had very different opinions and voting patterns, they were both very protective over the environment. She sets out to discover who murdered them in this John Grisham adaptation.