Linda Fairstein

updated 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SITTING BEHIND HER CLUTTERED STANDARD-ISSUE desk on the eighth floor of Manhattan's drab Criminal Court Building, Linda Fairstein cuts an elegant figure. Dressed in a green linen suit set off by gold bracelets, she reflexively grabs pad and pencil as she answers the phone. Fairstein has been waiting for this call. A 40-year-old woman's rape has been referred to New York County's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, and Fairstein has been eager to interview this friend of the victim. Brisk and matter-of-fact, she fires off questions, testing the friend's account against that of the victim's, looking for credibility that might persuade a jury. Fairstein hangs up and smiles. "I think we've got a case," she says. "Today, if a woman says it's rape, her word is just about good enough to bring a charge."

As chief of the country's oldest legal bureau specializing in sex crimes—the SCPU handles rape, sodomy and sexual abuse—Fairstein, 46, has crusaded for changes in New York Stale laws to make prosecution easier. Her new book, Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape chronicles her two decades on the front lines—a period in which the legal system has changed, she believes, for the better. "Women are assaulted ever)' day with fists, chairs, lamps," says Fairstein. "But rape is a violation of the most private part of a women's body, a crime of sexual violence, apart from every other kind of criminality. Not only do we need to prosecute the offenders aggressively, we need to treat the victims with extra compassion."

Fairstein's mix of sensitivity and toughness has also helped catapult her to national prominence. She was among the A-list guests invited to celebrate President Bill Clinton's birthday on Martha's Vineyard last month, and her name made the short list for U.S. Attorney General. Hollywood, too, has been smitten: The tough lady lawyer roles in Presumed Innocent and The Accused were partly based on Fairstein. "Linda can try a rape case in the morning, drink with cops after work and end the evening at the ballet," says her friend and former law-school classmate Michael Goldberg. "In each situation, she's completely herself."

It is the terrifying nature of rape that drives Fairstein both to prosecute and to protect. "Just when you think you've seen it all, something else comes along," she says, describing a 1981 case in which a nun was raped, mutilated and sodomized. "That just stunned me in a way that nothing had. With the Central Park jogger in 1989, I had never seen a gang rape involving 39 kids." Offering victims legal recourse—and solace—is what helps Fairstein cope. "Most people don't expect that," she adds. "Helping them restore their well-being and mental health is enormously rewarding."

Raised in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., she learned compassion from her father, Samuel, a doctor, and her mother, Alice, a nurse. Fairstein studied English al Vassar before following her older brother, Guy, to the University of Virginia Law school. She chose criminal over corporate law because "I loved its immediacy, the human problems and resolutions." As graduation approached, the dean steered her to the Manhattan district attorney's office.

Reporting for work in the fall of 1972, Fairstein was one of only seven women on the 160-man force. She had to learn survival skills quickly. After one grueling morning in court, she approached her supervisor close to tears. "For God's sake, Linda, stop crying," he snapped. "Go to the John and throw up like a man."

In 1976, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau tapped Fairstein, who had been prosecuting rapes since 1973, to become chief of the two-year-old sex crimes unit. "I loved the job from the start," she says. "The criminal justice system plays an actual part in the victim's recovery. Besides," she adds, "with homicides, the victims are dead. In sex cases they're alive."

Fortunately, archaic rape laws were just beginning to change. Requirements for independent corroboration of an assailant's identity were dropped. Defining rape as a crime of violence, the state also revised standards for physical evidence—for example, the presence of semen was no longer required. A rape shield law was enacted, excluding in court a victim's prior sexual history'. Moving to prosecute more aggressively, Fairstein convicted Marvin Teicher, a dentist who had abused patients under sedation, as well as the infamous "midtown rapist," Russell West, who assaulted 18 women. From a mere 18 convictions in 1969, Fairstein's unit—which now includes 22 assistant D.A.'s—won close to 300 cases last year.

Her own trial by fire was the Robert Chambers "preppy murder" case in 1986. That August, 18-year-old Jennifer Levin had been found strangled in Central Park. She had last been seen leaving a bar with the 19-year-old Chambers, who told police he had accidentally killed her during rough sex. Fairstein found herself in the midst of a media frenzy, defending the dead girl's reputation against tabloid stories about her "sex diary"—which, in fact, was merely her date and address book. After an 11-week trial, the jury was deadlocked. Rather than risk a mistrial, Fairstein allowed Chambers to plead guilty to manslaughter instead of murder. "It was an immense disappointment," she says. "Unfortunately, jurors are still influenced by class and race. One said Chambers didn't look like a killer."

Something good did happen during the grueling period of the preppy murder case. Five days before the trial, Fairstein married Justin Feldman, a politically liberal attorney she had met in 1985 when he asked her to become a member of the New York Bar Association's judiciary committee. "I thought he was the smartest man I'd ever met," she says, "a great enthusiast about everything." She and Feldman, 74—who has three children from his first marriage—live in a spacious apartment on Manhattan's East Side and escape on weekends to a 170-year-old house on Martha's Vineyard. A murder mystery fan, Fairstein jokes about someday turning out thrillers like her favorite writer, Patricia (Body of Evidence) Cornwell.

Meantime, Fairstein's own book is aimed at urging sex crime victims to come forward. "We still don't understand the complicated pathologies that cause men to rape, and until we do, we need to help and protect the victims," she says. "They need to know the system will work for them." Fairstein, too, has a support system to lean on. "Work is often very draining, very sad," she says. "Without Justin, my friends and my family, I wouldn't be able to do my job."

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