'Preppy Murder' spotlights Jennifer Levin, victim-blaming; would the case be different today?

Erin Jensen, USA TODAY

It's not easy watching "The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park" – a documentary about the 1986 slaying of Jennifer Levin in New York City and the trial of Robert Chambers, her assailant – more than 30 years later.

The five-part series, airing over three consecutive nights, kicked off Wednesday and continues Thursday and Friday (9 p.m. EST,  AMC and Sundance TV). In looking at the crime, the Chambers team's defense and the trial, it brings to light (or back to memory) the tactic of victim-blaming and highlights controversial aspects of the trial – including the decision to disallow DNA evidence, as it wasn't seen as credible. 

At the time of her death, Levin was 18 and Chambers was 19. They were friends and had a sexual relationship prior to her early-morning death on Aug. 26. Chambers told police Levin died accidentally when he threw her off of him while trying to defend himself from her sexual advances.

The documentary features interviews with friends of Levin, as well as her mother, Ellen; sister, Danielle; and an ex-girlfriend of Chambers, Alex Kapp. Prosecutor Linda Fairstein, Detective Mike Sheehan, who died in June, and a member of Chambers' defense, attorney Roger Stavis, are also interviewed. Chambers did not agree to participate in the series, and his defense attorney Jack Litman died in 2010.  

Though Fairstein received backlash following her portrayal in May's "When They See Us" about her prosecution of the five young men wrongfully accused of raping and assaulting a woman in Central Park, in "The Preppy Murder," we see her devotion to bringing justice for the Levins.

An impassioned Jessica Doyle says she wanted to be a voice in the documentary to correct the narrative about Levin, her "best friend." Thanks to Litman, tabloid newspapers seemed to question what role she played in her own demise. 

"Central Park suspect's lawyer claims 'Jenny killed in wild sex,'" one New York Post headline read. The headline "Girl's slaying suspect: Sex play 'got rough' " was splashed across the New York Daily News.

Robert Chambers, left, exits a New York court with his defense attorney Jack Litman on Oct. 21, 1987.

Ricki Stern, who co-directed the series with and Annie Sundberg, says the post-#MeToo climate is one of the reasons she wanted to revisit the case, citing Litman's attempt to vilify Levin because she wanted sex.

"A friend of Miss Levin testified the slain teen had said her previous encounters with Chambers had been 'the best sex' she ever had," the Associated Press reported in 1988, about the closing arguments of the trial.  ″'That’s why she pursued him, and that’s why – unfortunately – this wound up the way it has,' Litman said."

"In that day, there wasn’t a public outcry that might happen today when the media – led by a defense attorney – looks at a young woman and says, 'Oh, you asked for this. You wanted rough sex,' or whatever the narrative was that they created and essentially pinned this woman’s death on her own actions," Stern says. "And that’s important to reexamine in today’s day."

But she is less certain whether the current climate would influence the case. 

"It’s an interesting thing to consider. I don’t honestly know," she says. "I think there are so many cases of criminal injustice that continue on. You can look at the Steubenville case, you can look at the Stanford University case, where... the sympathy is still toward these boys. 'Boys will be boys.' 'They were drunk.' 'They shouldn’t be asked to take full responsibility for their actions.' 'They’re actually good boys, but they just did one bad thing.'" 

Sundberg believes the power of social media would've fostered "more debate, and hopefully more support" from the start for Levin.

 "We’re seeing it now, in what’s been playing out with several of the survivors who filed charges against Epstein and Jeffrey Epstein’s estate, that there is an openness to explore what would’ve previously been a marginalized narrative," she adds. "I would hope that women ... would feel that they have more support in terms of coming forward against a media that might paint them in certain ways."

Sundberg also brings up the DNA evidence from the crime scene, which State Supreme Court Justice Howard Bell ruled was not credible at a preliminary hearing, and prevented the prosecution from placing a denim jacket that Levin had worn that evening into evidence as a murder weapon. 

""And I think if this were happening today, DNA would’ve made this less controversial; the method of murder would’ve been clearer to prove," she says.

After more than a week of fruitless jury deliberations, the prosecution and defense agreed to a deal – Chambers pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and went on to serve 15 years, partly due to bad behavior in prison. 

Chambers was released in 2003 but re-arrested for selling drugs four years later, and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Today, he is serving his sentence at New York's Sullivan Correctional Facility.

One way the case may play out differently today, is thanks to the rape shield bill – which Levin's mom Ellen advocated for  – the sexual past of a crime victim (alive or dead) is no longer permissible in court.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Preppy Murder': Would 1980s murder case be treated differently now?