After Jennifer Levin was found strangled to death in Central Park in 1986, prosecutor Linda Fairstein fought to get the Levin family justice as one of the first female prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s office asked to try a homicide case.
Her recollections of the trial of Robert Chambers — the 19-year-old accused of killing Levin — are featured prominently in the five-part docu-series "The Preppy Murder: Death In Central Park," premiering on AMC and Sundance November 13, but it's her connection to another well-publicized case that drew her heavy criticism earlier this year.
As the former head of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes division, Fairstein also oversaw the interrogation and trial of the “Central Park Five,” a term given to five black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted in 1990 of the brutal rape of a Central Park jogger.
A dramatized re-telling of the men’s quest for justice was retold in Netflix’s “When They See Us,” which premiered earlier this summer.
The series by Ava DuVernay does not portray Fairstein in a favorable light, as the four-part series sees Fairstein pushing for the men’s convictions despite clear inconsistencies in their stories. "When They See Us" quickly sparked an online movement, with the #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag being used to stop production and sale of Fairstein’s crime novels.
Shortly after the series debuted, her publisher announced it was dropping the former prosecutor-turned-crime-writer, according to NBC News.
Just days later, Fairstein would fight back herself in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that called DuVernay’s retelling of the tale “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be outright fabrication.”
She contended that the series strayed from the facts in the case and used dramatic liberties.
“Ms. Duvernay’s film attempts to portray me as an overzealous prosecutor and a bigot, the police as incompetent or worse, and the five suspects as innocent of all the charges against them,” she wrote.
The men would be found guilty of the rape and assault, until their convictions were vacated in 2002 after Matias Reyes was linked to the crime through a confession and DNA.
Fairstein has always maintained, however, that she believes the five men had been part of a larger group at the park the night of the attack and were guilty of some of the lesser charges linked to the case, according to The New York Times.
Before the controversial debate this summer, Fairstein had long been hailed a hero in criminal justice circles — even serving as the inspiration behind “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
She started at the Manhattan district attorney’s office in 1972 as one of only seven women in the 160-man department, PEOPLE reported in a 1993 profile. Just four years later, she’d become the chief of the department’s sex crimes unit.
“I loved the job from the start,” she told PEOPLE. “The criminal justice system plays an actual part in the victim’s recovery.”
Fairstein would try her first murder case after 18-year-old Levin was found dead in the park in 1986. Investigators soon honed in on Levin’s friend, 19-year-old Chambers, who had been the last one seen with her in the pre-dawn hours before she was killed.
Chamber’s good looks and status as one of the city’s elite drew immediate media attention to the case.
The highly publicized trial pitted Fairstein against Chamber’s defense attorney Jack Litman, who relied heavily on a strategy to blame the victim for the crime. He argued that Levin had been the aggressor and had been trying to force unwanted, rough sex on Chambers when he reacted and accidentally killed her, according to the docu-series.
Fairstein, however, argued that physical evidence on Levin’s body suggested she had fought for her life and showed she had been the clear victim in the crime.
A jury would deliberate about Chamber’s fate for days, before the defense made the surprising decision to accept a plea agreement. Under the plea, Chambers would agree to plead guilty to manslaughter and would face five to 15 years behind bars.
Fairstein would go on to handle other well-known cases — including the Central Park Five — in the city before becoming a crime writer writing fictional accounts featuring a sex crimes prosecutor named Alex Cooper in books such as “Blood Oath,” “Deadfall,” and “Killer Look.”
But even as the years went by, Fairstein said Levin’s case has never been too far from her thoughts.
“I think we expect monsters to step behind from trees, strangers that your mother warns you about, and in fact it was the monster in our midst. It was the guy we hung out with, we wanted to be with because he was cool and he was extremely handsome,” she said in the docu-series.
Fairstein isn’t the only one featured in the documentary to also have ties to the “Central Park Five” case. Detective Mike Sheehan was an investigator in both cases and served in the New York Police Department for 25 years before leaving to become a reporter for WNYW, the New York Post reports.
He died in June 2019 at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer.
“He was a great guy and a great detective,” Jack Freck, his former partner and president of the Detective Investigators’ Association, told the news outlet.
Before his death, Sheehan discussed the Levin case in “The Preppy Murder” docu-series, providing details about the investigation and how the case continued to impact him more than 30 years later.
“Every time I go to Central Park, especially in that area, I’ll bless myself when I pass the tree,” he said in the series of the spot where Levin was found dead. “I will never forget this case as long as I live.”
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