Linda Fairstein left her job as the sex crimes chief after 30 years in the Manhattan DA's office in 2002 to write novels and is celebrating the release of her 14th novel - "Night Watch" featuring the intrepid prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. Fairstein, who began her writing career with the riveting non-fiction analysis "Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape," is herself the model for the character Alex Cabot on Law and Order: SVU. The winner of numerous awards for her work on behalf of victims and the abused, Fairstein will be signing her new book "Night Watch" 7 p.m. July 10 at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble, 150 Ea. 86th St.
Q You always manage to tuck a winking mention of your husband, Justin Feldman (a lawyer and Democratic reformer) into your novels. He died in September, and in Night Watch, Cooper tells her boyfriend that the great lawyer has died. Will he continue to live on in your novels?
A In this book (Alexandra) is saying goodbye. In the book she tells Luc he died and expresses her sorrow. . . I really felt this was a wonderful acknowledgement. Writing it after he died, I was so overwhelmed just by breathing. I couldn't deal with not letting him go. The person who most believed in me was Justin. Not that many people took me seriously at first when I said, 'I want to write novels' but he really believed I could do it. Only Justin! He was also the person who read my pages before I turned them in to the editor or agent. Last summer we were on the Vineyard and he read and criticized the first 150 pages. The hardest part of the book was the next 250 pages - going solo for the very first time. He told me all the time, 'you have to keep your focus!' He was so wonderful.
Q One of the crimes around which the novel revolves is clearly modeled on Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel housekeeper who accused former IMF head Dominique Strauss Kahn of sexual assault. What do you really think went on in that hotel room between them?
A I simply don't know. I'm really puzzled. I don't think anybody there (at the DA's office) is absolutely sure.
Q Night Watch's character, Blanca Robles has many parallels to the DSK accuser: Both were hard working immigrants who lied about their personal histories and hired civil attorneys to pursue a financial claim against wealthy, influential men they claimed assaulted them sexually. What is the moral of Blanca Robles?
A Two things. Predators know how to pick victims and they look for vulnerable people. But it's really important in the criminal justice system to tell the truth! You don't tell your doctor you have a headache so you can find out if he knows you really hurt your foot. A case won't get anywhere if you lie. Immigrants lying (to obtain) asylum? We've all dealt with that. But when she looked them in the eye and lied to their face about being raped before! . . . The issue is reasonable doubt. If you don't believe it yourself beyond a reasonable doubt, how can you convince a jury? The hardest cases we ever tried were cases in which the victim lied, but we believed the rape had taken place. We had one 16 year old girl from Rockland County who (told police) she was forced from a Saturday train full of people at knifepoint. It turned out she was raped, but she had come down here to score drugs, and was raped by the dealer in Riverside Park. She told the truth to the Grand Jury.
Q How can you tell is someone is lying - are there tells?
A The overwhelming number of people who come in are telling the truth - 99%. The fraction who don't hurt every other legitimate victim. You give everyone the benefit of the doubt before they trip themselves up. They come in blanketed in the assumption they are telling the truth, and often they have been victimized. But then it turns out they didn't get off work at 9 p.m. like they said but 5 p.m., or took the day off. Or they didn't have one drink at the bar - the bartender recalls she had four and then he cut her off. It's a black and white fact. In the book, the case is not dropped. But it's a problem for prosecutors to have that kind of witness - who lived a life so on the margins and who is a very facile liar.
Q It seems like rich people can always pay their way out of criminal jams by paying off their victims to drop a case. Should we have a law that restricts or delays civil cases from being brought until the criminal cases are concluded?
A A law like that is unlikely. Cases take so long (which could interfere with limitation statutes) and go in so many courses, it would be impossible. But money does pollute the process for rich, deep-pocketed defendants. There are many cases that are started and launched and then the victims backed off and wouldn't give a reason. I've told victims, 'I want a promise from you that there is no amount of money that you will take to drop this case.' We are not going to be used as leverage for (a civil) negotiation and we don't want the criminal courts used to get money out of someone. We've also had successful prosecutions (with a concurrent civil case against a criminal defendant) if they were honest. You tell the jury she's entitled to (sue) under the law, but they don't have to decide if she deserves anything. They only have to make THIS decision (as to the defendant's guilt.)
Q In your book, the banter between Cooper, the cops and the other prosecutors makes the writer sound nostalgic for her old job. Do you miss the DA's office?
A Every day! Absolutely! I'm still on the board of Safe Horizons and still consulting on lots of cases, but writing is very solitary and the job I had for 30 years was so collegial.
Q Might Night Watch be made into a movie?
A I can't say because someone is looking at it now. My agent is trying to sell it and approached the person I liked to play her. Films are so expensive to do these days you really need an actress with her own production company.
Q Will female actresses ever be identified with legendary crime-fighting roles as guys like Danny Glover and Mel Gibson? Where are our Murtaughs and Riggses?
A I really don't know. I love the genre and would love to see people on the screen in these so-called franchise movies. Sue Grafton - you know, "A is for Alibi"? - never wanted to sell to the movies, but I'm the opposite. I'd like more than anything to have that franchise. Also, we have TV stuff - Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, Temperance Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel) in Bones. A TV series wouldn't bother me, either!
Q Whatever happened to the civil case brought by the young men in The Central Park jogger case? (Former DA Robert Morgenthau vacated the convictions of five teenagers after a prisoner named Matias Reyes confessed to raping and nearly killing a jogger in 1989. At least three of "the Central Park five" are suing the city for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress.)
A We're in the middle of a civil law suit, so I can't comment. The depositions started two years ago and I still haven't been deposed yet. But keep in mind that Reyes denied participation in any of the other crimes in the park that night. It's going very, very well. You'll be surprised by what you'll find out. (The vacation of the original verdicts) was a great disgrace, and the truth will out. I'm very sure (the outcome) will be favorable to the justice system.
Q When will it all be tied up?
A Maybe by 2015.
Q Seems like the Manhattan sex crimes unit has had problems getting the convictions since Robert Morgenthau left. Do you have any idea why?
A What? You sound like Andrea Peyser! DSK would have been a problem on anyone's watch! The case of the two cops (NYPD officers Kenneth Moreno, acquitted last year of raping a Gap executive in 2008 while his partner, NYPD officer Franklin Mata allegedly stood watch) - there was no DNA and the victim was so drunk she couldn't remember what happened. Most jurisdictions would not have even tried it! I applaud them for trying it and her for standing up! That case would have been hard to try any where! We had binge cases all the time and unless you have something like a room mate who saw the assault - a living eye witness - most of those cases go no where. What are you asking the jury to believe? They might have a suspicion they did something awful, but you have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. They were incredibly courageous to bring it. They could have thrown it out! There was a lot of courage on both the prosecutors and the victim's part.
Q But the (NYPD Officer Michael) Pena case - which seemed a slam dunk because there were witnesses to the woman he raped - turned into a fiasco, too.
A That was the juror! (Attorney and juror Lloyd Constantine, who reportedly bogged the jury down in inconsequential details, neglected to mention during voir dire that he knew Vance and a former law partner of one of his election opponents.) You couldn't have had a better prosecution, a lawyer to try it or set of circumstances. That has an odor that is beyond imaginable. Cy Vance has done a stunningly effective job. These three cases show the difficulties of trying these kinds of cases and don't redound to anything. (Cy Vance) has done so many great cases. He's helped so many people - victims from the projects and the under class, but the media don't write about these cases. His cold case and DNA unit with homicides and rape cases? He's done astounding work! His Friday and Saturday Night Lights program up in Harlem? Nobody writes about it! And his crime strategy unit is doing really innovative work.
Q Okay! Back to your book. Is it true that both the carting industry and the linen-cleaning industries are still all mobbed up?
A Yes! Yes!
Q The novel alludes to the fact that only 1% of NYC restaurateurs own the space they occupy, which is a prime reason why so many go out of business. How did you get this statistic - and what can we do to help these businesses?
A I don't know about all the restaurants, like the average sized coffee shops out in the boroughs, but the mid-upscale restaurants in all five boroughs - only a very, very small percentage own their own restaurants. And they can't stand the Bloomberg ABC ratings! Inspections used to be routine, but now (inspectors) will come in the middle of a dinner. I learned about the restaurant industry from a man I dated in the early 1980s for three years before I met Justin, Andre Surmain (the founder of Lutece). I was introduced to him by a rape victim! After the trial - we got a conviction - she called me and said there was someone I had to meet.
Q So much of the book takes place in high end restaurants. Did you do a lot of eating as research?
A Look at me: I did a lot of research for this book! (Laughs.) I don't cook. Justin and I ate out all the time.
Q And your favorites?
A Oh - Primola - Al Pacino was sitting next to me there the other night. Patroon, Fresco, Michael's for literary stuff and I have my table at Rayo's once a month. I'm in the country (Martha's Vineyard) now and I grill stuff. I don't do anything with pots and pans. In the city, my kitchen is virginal. When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother were both phenomenal cooks and they both loved cooking. We sat down to eat what they made and eight minutes later we were done and washing dishes. That always looked so unrewarding to me.
Q So many people have dreamed of giving up their day job to write books, but you made it happen. Any words of advice on making the fantasy a reality?
A Be hell bent for leather and have a bit of a thick skin. I had the easy way in because I'd done a non-fiction book and I could get (agents and editors) to read it. I really empathize with writers trying to break in: It's so much harder now.