‘The Preppy Murder’ carefully reopens an infamous case

Sunday, November 17, 2019 - 4:58pm

AMC

NOSELL

AMC’s five-part documentary miniseries “The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park” examines Jennifer Levin’s murder, a case made infamous by the media circus surrounding the trial of her killer. The docuseries retraces how one murder came to represent an entire decade and illustrate the role of class and racial privilege in the justice system.

In the early morning of Aug. 26th, 1986, a bicyclist discovered an 18-year-old woman’s body under a tree in Central Park. Later identified as Jennifer Levin, the victim was assaulted and strangled to death some time after she was seen leaving popular teen hangout, Dorrian’s Red Hand. The crime rate in New York was reaching new heights due to the crack epidemic, but the circumstances of Jennifer’s death were unlike the drug-related murders the NYPD had investigated. A young white woman found dead in Central Park immediately piqued police interest, and made Levin’s case a top priority. 

Within hours, police had identified the popular and wealthy 19-year-old Robert Chambers as a person of interest in her murder. Although police first approached him as a potential witness, Chambers appeared to have multiple injuries consistent with Levin’s attack and later confessed to accidentally killing her after rejecting her advances. He quickly hired lawyers who built their defense around Chambers’ claim that Levin died as a result of him accidentally injuring her when he rejected her attempt to initiate “rough sex.”

Much of the series consists of personal interviews with Jennifer’s close friends and family who describe how she came to enter the prep school social circles as an outsider. The documentary also interviews various tabloid writers and field reporters who followed the case from its start and were largely responsible for creating public interest in the killing. Many of these media representatives explicitly stated they felt the murder of a white female was more “interesting” than crimes against minorities, which were often assumed to be drug-related. Reporters also jumped on the sexual element of the case and put emphasis on Jennifer’s, not Robert’s, social history.

“The Preppy Murder” uses its first two parts to make its purpose clear: Depict Jennifer Levin as she was, not as she was portrayed by the defense, and ask how a seemingly open-and-shut case became one of the most controversial trials of the decade. Intertwined with the facts of the case, the experiences of family members, friends, police officers, lawyers and reporters connected to Jennifer’s story are included in order to emphasize the importance of the crime’s social and political context. In addition to the grisly details of Levin’s injuries, one of the most disturbing features of the docuseries is how familiar the whole case feels. 

The current social conversation about acknowledging privilege has made the case of Jennifer Levin one of a host of other examples of what happens when actions are rarely met with appropriate consequences. An air of entitlement infects every aspect of the case and is most evident in footage of Chambers’s interrogation and subsequent confession. In every alteration to his story, every denigration of Jennifer’s character, every outburst against his interviewers, Chambers oozes the smug, sociopathic confidence of a man who thinks the investigation is beneath him. This attitude is hauntingly reminiscent of the arrogance exhibited by many of the men facing accusations of sexual assault in the #MeToo era. 

Like many other recent true crime documentaries, “The Preppy Murder” knows that just acknowledging what went wrong in this case has not and will not change things. The manipulation of the media and pervasive bias in favor of Chambers cannot be undone or erased. However, for “The Preppy Murder,” understanding the injustice and prejudice of this case will remind the American public of what it still owes Jennifer Levin and victims like her.