“I very definitely believe in evil,” Linda Fairstein (Law ’72) says.
The chilling words clash with the Algonquin’s posh décor. It’s been a while since H.L. Mencken called it America’s most comfy hotel and Broadway swells Dorothy Parker and George Kaufman traded barbs at its famous round table, but the Algonquin is elegant yet, its doorman nodding deferentially as the sharp blonde breezes in. Natty in a navy blazer and eggshell capris, Fairstein is the archetypal Big Apple sophisticate, but mistake her at your peril for one of Stephen Sondheim’s blithe “ladies who lunch.”
For 25 years, Fairstein was chief prosecutor in the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, overseeing every one of the borough’s sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and related homicide cases. “Hell on Heels,” a tabloid dubbed her, wry kudos for her stiletto-sharp mind and couture suits. Bill Clinton short-listed her for attorney general, and the producers of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit regularly chat her up. Today, she’s a New York Times best-selling crime novelist and a canny legal commentator to whom all the major networks turn for inside dope.
On trial, you’re living so intensely, working ‘til 12 at night, that when you turn out the light you’re exhausted but your adrenaline is still pumping.
So Fairstein knows a thing or two about evil. And as the June sunshine seeps through the blinds and jazz lite vies with the clang of heavy cutlery, she orders the $18 cheeseburger sans bun and proceeds to talk a mile a minute: “I’ve seen defendants mentally handicapped or impaired in some way, or from dysfunctional families, or afflicted by drug or alcohol abuse. But when it comes to certain other criminals, I think of a movie I saw when I was 10 years old, The Bad Seed, and the idea that someone could just be born bad.”
With lightning smarts burnished by a U.Va. law degree, the first female winner of the Federal Bar Council’s prestigious Emory Buckner Award goes deeper: “Robert Chambers, to me, personified evil. Very well-bred, well-brought-up, well-educated, he had parents who loved him and exposed him to all the best things—church every Sunday, New York’s best schools—and yet, every time since the age of 14 which, as I discovered, was when he began stealing and taking drugs, nothing could set him back on the right path. Interventions, rehab, nothing worked until, at 19, with his bare hands, he killed, face-to-face, a woman who was a friend of his. Listen, it’s so much harder—it takes three to four minutes—to squeeze the life out of somebody, as opposed to shooting across a room and not seeing the struggle, not seeing them bleed out. Chambers did that. Everybody talked about his respectable glow, his fashion-plate looks. Someone like that, they said, wouldn’t have to rape. Yet I’d been living for a year before the trial with autopsy pictures of what this girl’s neck looked like, while the public was looking at him like he was an altar boy, dressed to the nines.”
Fairstein prosecuted Robert Chambers (center) in the high-profile “Preppy Murder Case.” Chambers pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 1986 death of Jennifer Levin in New York’s Central Park.
Chambers was the dark star of 1988’s sensationally grisly “Preppy Murder Case,” wherein 18-year-old Jennifer Levin’s semiclad, bitten and bruised body was found by a bicyclist behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But he’s only the most notorious of the perps Fairstein has put away. Concurring with psychologist M. Scott Peck in People of the Lie, his landmark meditation on malice—that chronic deceit characterizes evil—Fairstein saw the strangler as a compulsive liar, scurrilously accusing Levin of a yen for “rough sex.” As the prosecutor announced at his trial, Chambers was the first male to claim sexual assault by a female in 10 years’ worth of reported cases of assault.
Other high-profile cases? Well, the Village Voice decried her 1990 handling of five teenagers charged with raping, beating and ditching a young woman known as the Central Park jogger, but banner headlines lauded her work on the trial of rioters following a Puerto Rican Day parade in 2000. Retired in 2002, the former candidate to head the NYPD concedes that her decades before the bench brought with them nightmares: “On trial, you’re living so intensely, working ’til 12 at night, that when you turn out the light you’re exhausted but your adrenaline is still pumping. I wouldn’t necessarily have dreams of bad guys coming after me, but I’d replay whole scenes—horrible things, sexual assaults.”
Her mornings of waking to horror and heartache, however, helped revolutionize American jurisprudence. In 1972, coming to work for Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan at the recommendation of her criminal law professor, Monrad Paulsen, Fairstein confronted a system myopic about violence toward women. Hogan’s staff numbered 170 lawyers but only seven women—none of whom had tried a murder in New York. And, cribbed from 17th-century British models, the laws they served were creaky. In most cases, an outside eyewitness had to corroborate any woman’s allegation of rape, and there had to be evidence of the attack’s sexual nature and the use of force—typically, recovery of a gun or knife. Manacled by these constraints, few victims saw justice. Indeed, Fairstein’s 1993 book, Sexual Violence: Our War on Rape, a New York Times notable book of the year, cites dismal figures for 1969: of the more than 1,000 New Yorkers arrested for sexual assault, a mere 18 earned convictions.
Fairstein brought reform. Her office helped eliminate the corroboration requirement; it also helped pass a rape shield law protecting witnesses from being cross-examined about their sexual histories. She also pioneered the use of videotape as evidence and DNA (her “three favorite initials”), and deployed a “cold hit” unit to prosecute suspects identified by 16,000 “rape kits”—hair, semen and stained clothes from crime scenes. By 1980, of the city’s 881 sexual assault arrests, 154 suspects were convicted. The zeitgeist had begun to shift, with rape hotlines, victim advocacy groups and mainstream press coverage of sexual assaults increasing.
A Whodunit How-To
Where: Since shootouts and car chases bore her, Fairstein’s novelistic “self-branding” includes fanatic research on fascinating worlds inside Manhattan, the city itself a character. The Bone Vault tours museums, from the Museum of Natural History and its 50 million human bones to the Cloisters; Death Dance explores the theatre scene; Cold Hit, the art world. The Entombed breaks into the Greenwich Village brownstone where Edgar Alan Poe blueprinted crime fiction; The Deadhouse visits a Victorian smallpox asylum on Roosevelt Island. For Fairstein, setting comes first. “I think of a world I’d like to inhabit for the half-year I’m writing a book. Then: ‘What’s here that people would kill for? Who’d be the killer? How and why would they do it in this particular place?’”
Who: Next, Fairstein creates her villain. Psychology is crucial, as is the bad guy’s ultimate fate (which she knows far in advance, unlike some crime writers). She’s especially intrigued by the monster in Killer Heat, due out in January 2008. Chronicling New York’s historical serial killings—a kind of homicide rare in big cities—the tale introduces a fictional killer “who kills just to kill,” Fairstein says. “In sadistic-sexual homicides, everybody looks for motive: lust, anger, hate. But this sort of killer? It just pleases him to kill.”
How: Variety is required. “I’ve shot somebody’s head off. I’ve stabbed somebody in the chest,” Fairstein says. “I have to keep thinking of new ways of killing. And I ask myself: ‘Do I want the medical examiner to play a part? How critical will forensics be? Will there be a twist—for example, a “death by natural causes” that turns out not to be?’”
Plot: Putting it all together, Fairstein says, is the hardest part. And her $2 million book contract demands ever-fresh ingenuity. It was easier at first. A real-life stalker haunted actress Greta Scacchi while she was basing her Presumed Innocent film character on Fairstein, so the prosecutor offered the actress her Martha’s Vineyard retreat as refuge. But Fairstein’s husband balked; its very remoteness made it a danger zone. Final Jeopardy, the writer’s 1996 debut, expanded on a “what-if?” of that situation. The novel starts with a blonde discovered in a driveway, her head exploded. It’s the driveway of Alexandra Cooper, Fairstein’s hero, so police assume she’s the victim. Reading her own obit in the paper, Alex pounces into the investigation. “That plot simmered a long time,” Fairstein says. “It didn’t occur to me until halfway through writing it that I’d signed a two-book deal and ‘Oh, I have to do this again?’”
As Fairstein’s career continued, she determined the essentials for a first-rate prosecutor. “The fundamental trait is integrity,” she says. “As North Carolina’s Mike Nifong sadly proves, without it, you’re nothing. Then, because not all cases have forensics and you can’t rely only on the word of the witness, sound judgment is essential. Good trial lawyers must also be good writers, because strategy involves language art—convincing the jury. You have to be able to articulate, to think instinctively on your feet. Some prosecutors can write out 400 questions for the witness, but when they’re forced to come up with the 401st, they go blank. And, although I hate when people liken the practice to dramatic skill, you do need presence. You have to command. A final characteristic is thoroughness. That’s huge. You have to know more than the best investigator is going to find out: cell-phone records, bank records, paper trails, minutiae.”
The substandard prosecutor, Fairstein says, is often a wanna-be gunslinger. “Notches on the belt, a great conviction rate, shouldn’t be the gold standard. The number of times I was able to exonerate—I’m just as proud of those cases as of convictions. You can’t hurry justice. In the Kobe Bryant case, for instance, you had a black suspect in an all-white town and a prosecutor who rushed to judgment even though there was DNA that proved to be somebody else’s. Again in the Duke lacrosse team case, you had a prosecutor whose vote depended primarily on the town’s black population. And that still didn’t slow the train down. As a prosecutor, you’ve got to realize that not everyone is a truthful victim. You have to say, ‘After I determine the truth, then I’ll be the best advocate the victim will ever have, but not until the truth comes out.’”
Years of grilling witnesses convinced Fairstein finally that “100 percent honesty is rare. And while most flaws in human nature prompt my empathy, in the criminal justice system there’s nothing worse than the lie,” she says. “A single simple lie about a critical fact in a case can forever change lives.”
Changing lives for the better has been Fairstein’s greatest reward. “Our band of colleagues did profound good,” she says. “Just yesterday, I had lunch with a woman who’d been bound and raped at knifepoint at the entrance to her building. Her assailant was a serial rapist caught by DNA evidence. Now she’s a corporate executive, a mother, married, and astoundingly whole. In the early days, people didn’t necessarily want to see me again after their trials. Now, women will call and say, ‘I want you to meet my baby.’”
These days, Fairstein still does pro bono work for victims of violence. But she’s pleased primarily to be writing about crime, no longer prosecuting it. As for the latter, that’s for future prosecutors, some of whom will surely enter courtrooms as recipients of U.Va.’s Fairstein Public Service Scholarship, established in 1998 by her law school classmates. Every year, the fellowship grants $5,000 to a rising third-year law student committed to working in the public sector. Of her many awards, that scholarship, Fairstein confides, may be her greatest honor.
Linda FairsteinPhoto by Peter Simon
The Crime Writer’s Life
It was her father, an anesthesiologist in a tony Westchester suburb, who guided Fairstein into the world of books. The Hardy Boys, then Conan Doyle, Poe and Agatha Christie. As an honors English major in Vassar’s last all-female class, she devoured Keats and George Eliot and wrote on the poet-critic Randall Jarrell. She’s reread Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Dickens’ Bleak House and every summer enjoys Trollope. She sticks to that eminent Brit because she won’t read crime fiction while penning her own, but her favorites in the field include Patricia Cornwell (who flew her to London to reinvestigate Jack the Ripper), P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and John le Carre.
The protagonist of Fairstein’s gripping thrillers, Alexandra Cooper (her “younger, thinner, blonder” alter ego), prosecutes sex crimes rich in procedural detail and street-smart gab. Sparking romantic tension with Cooper is Mike Chapman, a brainiac, ballet-smitten, Fordham-educated gumshoe.
As driven a writer as she was a crime buster, Fairstein identifies intensely with Cooper, often imagining the world through her character’s eyes, and she’s never without a pen.
Her husband, Justin Feldman, a securities litigator who managed Robert Kennedy’s 1964 senatorial campaign, is her first reader, a stalwart aficionado but a persnickety editor.
As a bestselling author, Fairstein keeps on top of her Web site and militantly clockwork schedule. Her books—nine so far—all come out January 15; then she’s busy with promotions until April. Come July, she’s holed up in a cottage behind her Martha’s Vineyard house, at the computer from morning until late afternoon. A Fairstein tip for writers? “I learned it from Hemingway,” she says. Where she once never concluded a day’s work without tying up a chapter or scene, she now always stops “with a little left over. You don’t have to face the blank page. You wake up charged.”
“Charged” aptly describes the fans who gathered for a Fairstein reading in June in Bryant Park for her latest, Bad Blood. Alongside crime-scribe colleagues Mary Jane Clark and Jacqueline Winspear, the author zestfully signed books, as over her shoulder loomed the beaux-arts beauty of New York’s Central Park Library, setting of Cooper’s next caper. Later, she confided: “This is living my childhood dream—writing. After all I’ve done, people expect to meet a grim person. But I’m very upbeat, happy. I’m not at all dark.”