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The #MeToo movement has empowered women to reveal long-buried stories of assault and harassment in part by re-examining the societal narratives of victim shaming that served to muzzle survivors. In the five-part The Preppy Murder, directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg offer a timely excavation of the killing of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin, who was strangled to death by Robert Chambers in Central Park on Aug. 26, 1986, days before Levin was due to start college in Boston.
For New Yorkers old enough to read a newspaper in 1986, the crime and the ensuing three-month trial in 1988 was inescapable. Chambers’ attorney and the city’s dueling tabloids portrayed Levin as a promiscuous downtown girl (she lived with her father and stepmother in SoHo) and Chambers as the Upper East Side former altar boy who accidentally killed Levin during “rough sex.” Never mind that the lurid headlines about “wild sex” and Levin’s secret “sex diary” were fabricated. (In fact, there was no sex on the night of the crime and the “sex diary” was an ordinary appointment book.) The circumstances of the crime — the iconic Central Park location, two seemingly privileged white teenagers involved — catapulted the story to pop culture infamy. It was the basis for a cheesy movie-of-the-week starring William Baldwin and Lara Flynn Boyle, the subject of countless TV newsmagazine segments, and it became a pop culture touchstone, referenced in songs (from Sonic Youth to The Killers) and novels (Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho).
If there is a growing acknowledgement of the misogyny inherent in victim blaming, it’s still being used today in the court of public opinion. But in 1986, when Chambers’ defense team shamelessly employed it, it was a commonly accepted legal strategy.
“It was very natural for people to say, she asked for it, she walked into Central Park on her own two legs at four in the morning, what do you think she wanted?” says Linda Fairstein, who prosecuted Chambers and by then had spent 10 years running the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit. “That was the most common defense at the time — for the cases that even got to the level of being prosecuted. This was just the most over-the-top example of it.”
Chambers’ version of the crime — that he accidentally killed Levin while trying to escape rough sex play she initiated — is laughable in hindsight. But DNA evidence was in its infancy; Fairstein had saliva and blood from Levin’s jacket analyzed, but the judge ruled that it did not pass scientific muster. So defense attorney Jack Litman successfully cast Chambers as a good church-going boy incapable of a violent murder.
“He was dressed by his team in a blazer and tie and would hold the door open in the morning going into the court room — for any of us women, unfortunately, arriving at the same time,” recalls Fairstein.
Chambers’ mother — an Irish immigrant and private nurse to wealthy Manhattan families including the Hammersteins and Kennedys — spearheaded an influence campaign, pressing Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Chambers’ godfather and at the time the Archbishop of Newark, to come forward as a character reference for her son. McCarrick wrote a letter to the judge on Chambers’ behalf, cloaking him in the moral rectitude of the then-influential Catholic Church and surely helping to secure bail for Chambers in the long run-up to his trial in 1988. McCarrick was defrocked in 2018 amid numerous claims of sexual abuse. The film suggests that McCarrick may have been motivated to intervene because he had also abused Chambers.
The jury deadlocked after nine days of deliberation. Chambers pleaded to the lesser crime of manslaughter and was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison. Unable to say out of trouble in jail, he did the maximum. He was released and arrested again in 2007, this time on drug charges. Chambers is eligible for parole in 2024.
“It was a case that had so much media attention but it was media attention that was largely focused on Robert Chambers,” notes Sundberg. “And Jennifer Levin’s story was either misrepresented or not represented at all. This was an opportunity to go back and find out exactly why that happened.”
The five-part documentary, which bows Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on SundanceTV and AMC, also puts the crime into anthropological context of Manhattan in the mid-1980s when the city was still defined by its pulsing night life and the swagger of Wall Street traders and Lower Manhattan was still a graffiti-festooned enclave colonized by artists. Before they went to the park, Chambers and Levin were drinking at the Upper East Side bar Dorrian’s, a popular hangout spot for Manhattan’s private school kids where underage drinking was known and tolerated. So the media portrayal of Levin and Chambers and their ilk as feckless, rich kids of wealthy absentee parents took hold.
“I think it’s offensive to minimize these kids, to say they were just negligent young people out there spending mommy and daddy’s money,” says Stern, who grew up in New York City and frequented the same social circles as Chambers. “Back then, New York was a much more socioeconomically diverse city. You didn’t have to be a Wall Street tycoon to live in New York and to have a home life in New York. Now it’s uber-wealthy and everyone is in their big SUVs, their feet never touch the sidewalk. It was not that way back then. SoHo was an artist community. The Upper West Side was a much more scrappy area. We think of the Upper East Side as Park Ave. But east of Park, when you get to Lexington and York, that’s where a lot of people I knew lived and they lived in fairly humble apartments.”
Adds Stern, “I said to Annie, if anyone’s going to make this series, it’s going to be us. We need to set the record straight.”
Setting the record straight would require the participation of the Levin family. But Ellen Levin, Jennifer’s mother, was reluctant to relive the hell of the media coverage and trial. (Dominick Dunne advised Ellen Levin to attend the trial every day; Dunne, of course, endured his own daughter’s murder trial several years earlier.) It was Fairstein who convinced Ellen to participate in the documentary. Her outrage over the craven character assassination of her daughter is palpable all these years later, but her memories are critical in humanizing Jennifer.
“This is one of those cases that, until the O.J. Simpson case, there was nothing like this,” notes executive producer Robert Friedman. “It was on the front of the tabloids, you couldn’t watch the news without seeing it. It is embedded in all of our remembrances of this era. And [Chambers] was a symbol of white male power and beauty. But no one had ever told Jennifer’s story.”
Friedman is the CEO of New York-based Bungalow Media, which also produced the documentary feature The Panama Papers and Lifetime’s upcoming Surviving Jeffrey Epstein docuseries, with Stern and Sundberg attached to direct. He admits to his own infatuation with the case that rocked New York when he was a rising executive at the then-nascent MTV Networks. (Chambers’ mother worked as a private nurse in the home of Friedman’s best friend from childhood.) He has also maintained a friendship with Fairstein, a fellow Vassar College alum. Extensive interviews with Fairstein and retired NYPD detective Mike Sheehan, who was the lead investigator on the case, form the procedural backbone of the documentary. (Sheehan, who was also an investigator on the Central Park Jogger case, died in June from what Fairstein described as 9/11-related cancer.)
Since filming on The Preppy Murder wrapped, Faristein’s legacy also has been complicated by her rendering as the villain in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, a dramatization of the Central Park Five case. After the series premiered, Fairstein was forced to resign from several boards, including those of Vassar College and Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation. (Fairstein’s work in the Manhattan DA’s sex crimes unit formed the basis for Hargitay’s Law & Order: SVU.)
While Stern admits that the furor surrounding Fairstein ignited by When They See Us did give her and Sundberg pause, “our effort was really to get the point of view of the Levins, and the Levins were really supportive of Linda and the work that she did on this case. And they were grateful to have a woman — Linda was only the second woman in the Manhattan DA’s office to ever try a murder case.”
Fairstein has not spoken out about the Central Park Five case since penning a blistering Wall Street Journal editorial in June in which she characterized the series as a “fabrication” and an “outrage.” She also refuses to talk about her treatment in the media.
“Ava had a very particular lens she was exploring the Central Park jogger case through,” says Sundberg. “She had a story that she was looking to tell that speaks to a larger issue of racial imbalance and inequity in our criminal justice system. Linda had her own forms of harassment during the course of [the Chambers] trial. Jack Litman was known for making antagonizing and inappropriate comments to her both in the courtroom and between them personally. We really focused the storytelling on the context of Linda’s work in this particular case at the time.”
Fairstein offers a terse “no comment” when asked for her views of the current social media-fueled cancel culture. Regarding her legacy, though, she is more expansive: “Our unit was the first of its kind in the country. We did groundbreaking work in making sex offenders accountable for their crimes in ways that have never been done before. We created almost every technique that has been used since 1976 to improve the way these cases are handled and to exonerate people falsely accused. We pioneered the use of DNA. We did the first rape evidence kit project in 1999 and cleared 16,000 cases in New York City. And it’s work of which I’m enormously proud.”
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Jon M. Chu