Several longtime, well-known members and honorees of the Mystery Writers of America, including two mystery booksellers and a past president, have made public their extreme displeasure with the association's quick retraction of a Grand Master Edgar to Linda Fairstein last month. They argue that the MWA board caved in to a Twitter campaign that was a form of "cyberbullying" and "mob rule"; did not follow any kind of due process or engage with members on the matter; and was deceptive in saying it didn't know about the mystery author's earlier career as a sex crimes prosecutor in New York City, which involved the 1989 Central Park Jogger case.
In that case, which 30 years later continues to inspire passions, five minority teens were tried and convicted for the rape and severe beating of a jogger in Central Park. Defenders of the young men say their confessions were coerced and point out that years later, another man confessed to the rape. The five were released in 2002 and were paid $41 million by the city in 2014. Fairstein and other law enforcement figures have continued to maintain that the five were involved in the beating and other beatings the night of the crime, and that their confessions were not coerced. And Fairstein emphasizes that she did not lead either the investigation or the prosecution of the case.
The series of events involving the MWA began on Tuesday, November 27, when the association announced that Fairstein and Martin Cruz Smith would be recipients of next year's Grand Master awards. Almost immediately, author Attica Locke condemned the idea of honoring Fairstein, tweeting (see the full thread here): "@EdgarAwards As a member and 2018 Edgar winner, I am begging you to reconsider having Linda Fairstein serve as a Grand Master in next year's awards ceremony. She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five./ For which she has never apologized or recanted her insistence on their guilt for the most heinous of crimes, 'guilt' based solely on evidence procured through violence and ill treatment of children in lock up..../ Just because she has a flourishing publishing career does not mean we should ignore her past--or her continued unwillingness to accept responsibility for ruining five innocent men's lives. I cannot support this decision. Surely, someone else is more worthy our attention, support, and this laudatory role in the 2019 @EdgarAwards."
Her tweet was widely retweeted and others supported her. The MWA board said in response, "We are taking seriously the issues raised by Attica Locke. Our Board is going to discuss these concerns as soon as possible and make a further statement soon."
By Thursday, November 29, two days after its announcement, the board said it was retracting the award, adding that when it made the decision, it was "unaware of Ms. Fairstein's role in the controversy. After profound reflection, the board has decided that MWA cannot move forward with an award that lacks the support of such a large percentage of our members. Therefore, the board of directors has decided to withdraw the Linda Fairstein Grand Master award. We realize that this action will be unsatisfactory to many. We apologize for any pain and disappointment this situation has caused."
MWA also said it will be "reevaluating and significantly revising its procedures for selecting honorary awards in the future" and hoped members will "work with us to move forward from this extremely troubling event and continue to build a strong and inclusive organization.
In a letter to the board, Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop, New York City, and a longtime mystery book publisher, recipient of Raven and Ellery Queen awards and a former MWA board member, called the retraction of the award "cowardly and reprehensible."
He wrote, in part: "Many on the MWA board admit they knew nothing about one of the most famous criminal cases in the history of New York, yet it gave 'profound reflection' in making its disgraceful decision, besmirching the reputation of one of the finest, most decent and honorable women I have ever known. Its claim that the award lacks the support of such 'a large percentage of our members' is a disingenuous, outright lie, as it is only the small coterie of frightened sheep caving to political correctness that made the decision. The membership was never polled. You should be ashamed of yourselves."
He concluded his letter to the board this way: "I have been a proud member of MWA for more years than many of you have been alive, but that pride no longer pertains. I am ashamed of you and of the organization for taking such a cowardly stance. For many years, I have welcomed the celebration of the incoming board with a party at the Mysterious Bookshop. The board does not deserve a celebration of any kind, and it would be hypocritical of me to host one. You are no longer welcome in my bookshop."
Noting that he was a 42-year member of the MWA and a past president, author Nelson DeMille sent to the board what he called "a difficult letter for me to write. But it would be more difficult for me to stay silent about your decision to withdraw Linda Fairstein's Grand Master award."
He said he doubted that the board's statement that it was unaware of Fairstein's connection with the Central Park Jogger case. "It was national news at the time, and a quick Internet search as you were researching Linda Fairstein's bio for this award would have all of this. I suspect that the board, or individual members of the board, were aware of Ms. Fairstein's involvement in the case, but like most fair-minded people they understood that Ms. Fairstein as chief of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office had acted professionally and responsibly and without prejudice or malice."
He also criticized the board for having "no idea of how most MWA members feel about this issue. The board simply panicked in the face of race-tainted accusations from a few perpetually outraged members of the fringe, who while attacking Ms. Fairstein also took an opportunity to attack our organization." He added that he will not attend the Edgar awards next year and said others "should think about staying home."
Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Scottsdale, Ariz., and co-owner of Poisoned Pen Press, a recipient of the MWA's Raven Award and the Ellery Queen Award and nominee and publisher of many Edgar nominees, has resigned from the association after 29 years of membership. She criticized the Twitter campaign, saying that Attica Locke should have identified herself as a screenwriter "on the Ava DuVernay documentary [the Central Park Five miniseries that will air on Netflix next year].... Instead, deliberately choosing to leverage an award given to her into a bully pulpit, she raised a Twitterstorm. It's cyberbullying. And devastatingly, by caving to the mob rather than standing by its decision and by citing a number of implausible rationales for its action, the MWA board has created a culture of fear where its members are reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation. Not just retaliation by the mob but from MWA itself."
Peters said added: "I am speaking up in hopes that others will, not to take personal sides but to encourage MWA to look at its policies, its lack of due diligence or due process, and how it might address the broad spectrum of issues raised."