Dead WrongAMC’s “The Preppy Murder” Revisits a Shameful Perversion of Justice

Admitted 'Preppie Killer' Robert Chambers (center) walks out of Auburn Prison February 14, 2003, in Auburn, New York. Chambers served his full sentence for killing Jennifer Levin August 26, 1986 in New York's Central Park. Chambers walked to the front of the prison where a waiting van took him to an undisclosed location. (Photo credit: Chris Rank/Getty Images)

“Killed backpacker Grace Millane was into choking, BDSM: court evidence” read the headline of a November 20 New York Post piece about the trial of an unnamed New Zealand man accused of killing a British woman. The two met on Tinder while Millane was traveling in New Zealand, and the man claimed that the 22-year-old died during a sexual encounter that involved consensual choking; afterward, claiming he was “panicked,” he packed her body into a suitcase and buried it in a wooded area. And though details calling the killer’s story of supposed–rough sex gone wrong didn’t hold up (among other things, he took photos of Millane’s body after her death), it was Millane’s sexual past and proclivities that were splashed out into news media worldwide.

Just a week prior, AMC’s docuseries The Preppy Murders: Death in Central Park, premiered. The plot made headlines like the Post’s seem like a horrifying convergence, as much about Millane’s case echoed the one chronicled in the series: In 1986, a young woman was strangled and killed; the man responsible claimed it wasn’t intentional murder, but an accidental result of rough sex; and suddenly it was the deceased woman’s sex life that became the story, and her past, rather than his violence, that was put on trial. The more depressing realization, though, is that Grace Millane and, 33 years before, 18-year-old Jennifer Levin, are simply two of the countless women whose deaths have thrown into sharp, inescapable relief the way women are made responsible for the harm that comes to them.

Like people who remember exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot or when the first place hit the Twin Towers on 9/11, I remember reading about Levin’s murder while in a dentist’s waiting room. The acrid smell of eugenol and tooth dust is forever linked with the fate of a girl who, after a night with friends at a Manhattan bar, went into Central Park with a guy she liked and never came out. I didn’t know Levin, but she was a familiar figure: white, Jewish, private-school educated, popular. She could have been the cool older sister of one of my friends, or the camp counselor whose tanned skin carried a sheen of adulthood, a promise of things to look forward to. But at age 13, I could tell that the photo of Levin’s broken, lifeless body—blurry, taken from a distance, mostly obscured by a scrum of detectives—along with the references to her “panties” that dotted the article, were meant to convey a different story.

AMC’s five-part miniseries was created by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, the team behind critically acclaimed docs like 2010’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, 2012’s Knuckleball!, and 2018’s Reversing Roe, and retraces the trajectory of a terrible crime, a trial that transfixed New York City media, and an outcome that never came close to justice. Sundberg and Stern saw, in the wake of #MeToo, a chance to look at how the institutions that failed Levin—law enforcement, tabloid media, and the courts—constructed a narrative whose effects and repercussions still resonate. “Jennifer Levin’s story was either misrepresented or not represented at all,” Sundberg told The Hollywood Reporter. “This was an opportunity to go back and find out exactly why that happened.”

Among those on hand to reconstruct the facts are Mike Sheehan, the lead detective in the case, and Linda Fairstein, the former head of the sex-crimes unit at the Manhattan D.A.’s office, who prosecuted it. Levin’s mother and sister offer insights, information, and still-burning anger, as do two of her former friends, Jessica Doyle and Peter Davis. Parts of the series are heavy with a kind of retroactive foreshadowing: Part of Chambers’s character defense, for instance, was drawn from his childhood as an altar boy; Theodore McCarrick, a Catholic cardinal who at the time was the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, penned a letter lobbying for Chambers to be released on bond. McCarrick was defrocked in February 2019 after at least seven men alleged that he had sexually abused them as children, a revelation that presents Sundberg and Stern with the haunting possible plot twist that Chambers, too, had been a victim.

And then there’s Fairstein’s and Sheehan’s involvement to contend with, given recent revelations about their roles—Fairstein’s in particular—in the 1989 rape and assault of a jogger that wrongfully convicted the five Black and Latino teenagers known as the Central Park Five. Fairstein wasn’t the lead prosecutor, but she oversaw the investigation and interrogations in the high-profile, deeply racialized case—and her determination to do right by another white, female victim of violence in the park ultimately sent five boys to prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Fairstein was interviewed for The Preppy Murders before the release of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed Netflix series about the Central Park Five, When They See Us, but its revelations about both Fairstein and the NYPD can’t help but complicate their appearance here.

The Preppy Murder is skillful in its use of archival newspaper and broadcast footage to capture the zeal the case inspired in New York’s tabloid media: The murder of a beautiful young white woman by a handsome young white man was catnip to reporters who had become inured to the ongoing casualties of the city’s crack epidemic. The murder was spun into cautionary stories about the wayward, unparented spawn of NYC’s elite and reflections on what Manhattan’s culture of greed-is-good profligacy was teaching youth flush with liquor and boredom. There was even a political angle: At Dorrian’s Red Hand the night of the murder, the bartender who served Levin, Chambers, and their peers was John Zaccaro Jr., the son of former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

But there was no question that the center of the story was Robert Chambers, a young man who wasn’t born into wealth, but whose proximity to it—along with a strong jaw and piercing blue eyes—led far too many people to presume his innocence. Given the ongoing (and, for many, inexplicable) media fascination with Ted Bundy, another handsome killer, it seems odd that it’s taken until now for Chambers to get the true-crime documentary treatment. (The 1989 made-for-TV movie that starred Lara Flynn Boyle and Billy Baldwin is probably best left unexplored.) But it also makes a sick kind of sense: The defense built for Chambers, after all, was that he was just so handsome that Levin almost literally threw herself at him in Central Park, pressuring him into sex he didn’t want, sex that caused him to kill her in his attempt to escape.

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(Photo credit: screenshot from TimesMachine/The New York Times Archives)

Physical evidence and reports from friends seen that night made getting a confession from Chambers straightforward—”I thought this was the simplest case in the world,” recalls Sheehan—so the question around which the case coalesced was whether he had intended to kill Levin. And his defense lawyer, Jack Litman, knew that there was one slam-dunk way to prove that he hadn’t: weaponizing his victim’s sexual past. Long before the language of “victim-blaming” entered the mainstream vernacular, the idea that Levin had caused her own death was the linchpin of the entire case. Litman is The Preppy Murder’s secondary villain, orchestrating a coordinated effort to smear Levin, leaning heavily on the fact that Levin and Chambers had previously had sex to goose all-caps headlines like “How Jennifer Courted Death” and “Jenny Killed in Wild Sex.”

But Litman could flagrantly embellish Levin’s story with impunity—for instance, turning the ordinary datebook calendar she kept into what the papers called a “sex diary” by mentioning it to the press—because the outline he’d sketched of her was so reliably filled in with existing cultural disapproval of women’s sexual agency. “[S]he was on trial for wanting to have sex,” is the blunt assertion from Jessica Doyle, Levin’s best friend, in The Preppy Murders. The documentary is sympathetic to Fairstein and Sheehan, who remain troubled by their inability to secure justice for Levin: The jury’s failure, after nine days of deliberation, to break a deadlock resulted in a plea deal that sentenced Chambers to five to 15 years on a lesser charge of manslaughter. It is perhaps a little too sympathetic to the two NYC broadcast reporters, Magee Hickey and Rosanna Scotto, who covered the story at the time: Both women explain that the media’s thirst for a juicy narrative prioritized commenting on the good looks and breeding of a murderer even as it slandered his victim, but stop short of acknowledging or reflecting on their own complicity in shaping that narrative. (Hickey does note that she “couldn’t understand why people found [Chambers] attractive, because there seemed to be something wrong.”)

But the film ultimately belongs to Levin’s family and friends, who remain rightfully furious at the character assassination that memorialized her as a slut with bad luck rather than as a carefree, loving young woman—and a victim of what anyone looking at autopsy photos can deduce was murder. They break out childhood photos and high-school yearbooks, taking every chance they can to restore the humanity stolen from Levin. The heartbreak in Ellen Levin’s voice as she recalls the choice of taking a plea deal or declaring a mistrial—”We knew we could not go through this again”—pierces the documentary’s more matter-of-fact procedural details. (Ellen Levin went on to work as a victims-rights advocate, helping to adapt New York State’s rape-shield laws to apply to deceased victims as well as victims of crimes not involving sex.)

Women’s lives, their senses of self, their career options, and their public images remain collateral when it comes time to uphold those same things for the men who harmed them. 

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But even for those who don’t feel any connection, direct or otherwise, to the case, The Preppy Murder does a crucial job of articulating not only the insidiousness of misogyny but also the way its directives continue to fall on women even after they’re gone. Fairstein, for instance, describes wishing she could have been there that night to warn Levin not to go into the park (though it’s worth considering that, in a post–When They See Us world, she’s thinking of the trajectory of her own life as much as of Levin’s). More affecting is Alex Kapp, who at 16 was Chambers’s girlfriend at the time of the murder. Kapp recounts discovering that Chambers—who had a secret sideline in robbing the expensive apartments of his friends and acquaintances—had stolen all the money from her wallet the night before, and went to Dorrian’s to confront him.

When he breezed past her to join a group of friends that included Levin, Kapp followed, flinging a handful of condoms at him and storming out of the bar—an act that Fairstein, among others, theorized might have so embarrassed Chambers that it triggered his violence against Levin later that night, and that indeed led people to blame Kapp directly for Levin’s death. It’s tempting to look at the current media landscape and see the enlightenment and nuance that was absent from the lurid mid-’80s headlines that screamed from newsstands. There’s been incremental progress in reporting on sex crimes, thanks largely to consumers empowered by the tools of social media to push back on the kind of overt victim-blaming and slut-shaming that defined Jennifer Levin’s death and gave cover to her killer.

But what’s evinced by the week-old headline about Grace Millane—to say nothing of the victims of men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, silenced by nondisclosure agreements and then cast as consensual participants—is that women’s lives, their senses of self, their career options, and their public images remain expendable when it comes time to uphold those same things for the men who harmed them. Sundberg and Stern reached out to Chambers for The Preppy Murder and got no response (he remains in prison, serving a 19-year sentence for dealing drugs—a longer sentence, as Ellen Levin notes, than he got for manslaughter). It’s hard to imagine, though, what someone who never showed even a bit of remorse could say for himself. He’s a cipher who maintains the benefit of the doubt, a ghost who reminds us of how far we haven’t come, and a symbol of just how far we will go to hold everyone but a victimizer responsible for his acts.

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by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.