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 in a Manhattan bar and left with a charming monster wound up half-naked and 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 miniseries that reexamines 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.
Yet even I admit that the Levin case remains a fascinating, heartbreaking and — as emphasized in this series — infuriating tale. The story still powerfully conjures the perennial subtexts about class and economic background (uptown and downtown; Jewish and Catholic; blue-collar resentment of white-collar privilege; female sexual desire weighed against the entitled male libido), 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, drug use and underage drinking. A restaurant and pub on Second Avenue, Dorrian’s Red Hand, was the preppy kids’ hangout, serving them alcohol when presented with their shoddy fake IDs.
“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. “It was like a 9/11 moment,” recalls Peter Davis, who had hosted Levin at his parents’ Southampton summer house the weekend before she died. “It really shattered my vision of the world and life — and safety.”
Still, when you Google Levin’s name today, Robert Chambers comes up first instead. The documentary reexamines 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, recalls 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 says he acted in self-defense, 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; he said they had sex three times before.
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’s good looks: the blue eyes, the chiseled jaw, the hair. On his first perp walk, recalls 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’s aggressive defense attorney, the late Jack Litman, encouraged reporters to blame Levin for her own violent death by insinuating that she kept a personal sex 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 behavior. Catholic church officials, according to the film, helped the Chambers family with Robert’s bail; the film also explores connections between Chambers and Theodore McCarrick, the defrocked cardinal accused of sexually 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.
“This is why we’re all here, right?” asks Jessica Doyle, who was Levin’s best friend. Remembering that her friend “was on trial for wanting to have sex,” Doyle’s disgust is raw and relevant. “This is honestly what we need to deal with here,” she says.
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.
The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park (five hours) three-night documentary miniseries premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on AMC and Sundance TV.