‘Preppy Murder’ series restores some dignity to his victim

Hank Stuever

THE WASHINGTON POST – Judging from the blank looks I get from some of my younger colleagues when the words “preppy murder” come up, it would seem that this combustible moment in tabloid American culture has faded into history more than I might have guessed. (Jennifer Levin? Robert Chambers? Dorrian’s Red Hand? No? Nothing?)

But as the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh reminded us last year, the 1980s are never as far away as we might wish them to be, and they are more than just a museum of Reaganomics and hot pink leg-warmers.

They also carry psychic wounds and watershed moments, particularly on the subjects of crime and gender.

We struggled back then with such concepts as acquaintance rape and routine assaults. We knew little about violence against women within our own social circles, other than the occasional notion that certain crimes might somehow be the woman’s fault. A form of slut-shaming, as it’s called now, greeted the news that a young woman in a short skirt who stayed out too late and left with a charming monster wound up dead under a tree in the city’s most public place.

These themes lend a fresh and necessary resonance to The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park, Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s sharply told and often riveting documentary mini-series that re-examines the August 1986 death of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin and the subsequent, drawn-out media coverage and trial of her confessed killer, Robert Chambers, then 19, who claimed he choked her while defending himself from her advances.

Airing over three nights beginning Wednesday on both AMC and Sundance TV, The Preppy Murder (produced by Robert Friedman) takes every advantage of our present-day cravings for meticulously paced tales of true crime, an obsession I lately find dispiriting and counterproductive, almost verging on repugnant. TV today is packed with murder, murder, murder, with storytellers who are still too often obsessed with the creeps who commit the crimes. The victims (and their grieving survivors) are useful mainly for their tears.

The documentary shows photos of Jennifer Levin’s childhood. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Yet even I admit that the Levin case remains a fascinating, heartbreaking and – as emphasised in this series – infuriating tale. The story still powerfully conjures the perennial subtexts about class and economic background, and in many ways, it presaged much of the narrative framework of our modern crime shows and podcasts, from Law & Order forward. Levin’s strangulation also serves as an eerie prequel of sorts to the attack on the Central Park jogger in 1989 and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson in 1994. This documentary is more than just a lurid retrospective, however, and it benefits greatly from the collective hindsight of 30-plus years.

Stern and Sundberg, who have previously made films about Roe v Wade and the latter-day career of Joan Rivers, treat seriously the first item of overdue business here, which is to tell us who Levin was, besides a dead body with ghastly strangulation bruises on her neck. They restore some rightful details about what she was like and how much she was loved and admired.

Levin’s mother, Ellen, and older sister, Danielle, provide a fuller picture of a quirky, fun-loving, stylish teenager who preferred the excitement of the grittier, ’80s Manhattan of proto-hipster lore; she chose to live with her father in his SoHo apartment through high school, yet she was socially drawn to the Upper East Side, where she made a circle of friends who all attended New York’s elite prep schools.

The documentary probes deeper into the lifestyles those kids enjoyed, not unlike the rambunctious teen movies of the day – wealthy parents gone for the weekend, leaving opportunities for wild parties. A restaurant on Second Avenue, Dorrian’s Red Hand, was the preppy kids’ hangout.

The Preppy Murder has a deep and abiding interest in this era and atmosphere: how the kids looked, how they talked, what they felt, what New York was like.

Levin’s best friends, still grieving, reach for their old yearbooks and calendars, as if they’ve been desperate to tell her story all these years.

Still, when you Google Levin’s name today, Robert Chambers comes up first instead. The documentary re-examines how quickly police detectives zeroed in on him the morning Levin’s body was found. “This is the simplest case in the world,” the lead detective, Mike Sheehan, recalled thinking. “But I had no idea.” We watch old videotape as an assistant district attorney, interviewing Chambers in custody, teases out an implausible half-confession. Chambers said he acted in self-defence, grabbing Levin by the neck after she assaulted him. He talks about how she was just some girl he met earlier that year who repeatedly came on to him.

The case soon caught fire well beyond New York, captivating some of us who happened to be in college at the time. Viewers who vividly remember these details will already know how much of the story revolved around Chambers’ good looks: the blue eyes, the chiseled jaw, the hair. On his first perp walk, recalled local TV reporter Rosanna Scotto, “Everyone in the newsroom stopped in their tracks.”

It’s astonishing now to think how an alleged killer’s handsomeness could shift public perception, but it did. Chambers’ aggressive defence attorney, the late Jack Litman, encouraged reporters to blame Levin for her own violent death by insinuating that she kept a personal diary and was upset that Chambers didn’t want to be her boyfriend. In TV coverage at the time, young women are seen deploring Levin’s behaviour. The film also explores connections between Chambers and Theodore McCarrick, the defrocked cardinal accused of abusing minors and seminarians.

Through all this, Levin’s family and friends could only watch in despair as the trial dragged on and ended in a plea deal in April 1988. Chambers wound up serving all 15 years of that sentence; he was released in 2003 and wound up back in prison in 2008 for selling drugs, where, according to the film, he will remain until at least 2024.

Linda Fairstein, the former Manhattan prosecutor who was vilified in all the recent interest over the conviction of innocent teenagers in the Central Park jogger case, regains perhaps a bit of her stature here, recalling in great detail the frustration of reminding the world that this was always about the killing of a young woman, not the fate of a dashing criminal. There’s a lesson, too, for the makers and consumers of the true-crime industrial complex: If you only replay the headline horror of it all, then you’re simply reviving and compounding the emotional damage. If, however, you lead with empathy rather than just forensic curiosity, you can let in some light and discover so much more.