Decades ago, Jennifer Levin was found strangled to death, abandoned in Central Park by a man she had thought was her friend — but after Robert Chambers' arrest, it would be Levin that was tried in the court of public opinion after Chambers' attorney launched an aggressive campaign to blame the victim for her own death.
“If he could dirty-up the reputation of the victim, he would do so, and he would do it as far as he could get away with it. He would go right to the edge,” lead detective Mike Sheehan said of Chamber’s attorney, Jack Litman, in the docu-series “The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park," which follows Levin's killing, airing on AMC and Sundance.
The 18-year-old’s sexual past and her intentions that night soon became fodder for the local media as Levin was painted as a loose girl who had been the aggressor in a romantic encounter gone wrong, while Chambers was portrayed as a handsome prep school student who had been a devoted Irish Catholic.
“The media kind of, almost weirdly, were on like team Robert Chambers even though he had killed her,” Levin’s friend Peter Davis elaborated in the series.
The case that gripped the city began when Levin’s body was found by a bicyclist on August 26, 1986. She was laying by a tree with her bra and top pulled up. There was heavy bruising on her body, deep red marks across her neck, a swollen left eye, and bruised fingernails, suggesting in her final moments she had tried to pull down whatever had been strangling her.
“This kid put up the fight of her life. I mean, who does that? That person has to pay,” Sheehan said of the teenage victim.
Chambers, who had been the last person seen with thee 18-year-old at a popular bar nearby, soon became the prime suspect after investigators went to talk with him and discovered his face was covered in deep scratches.
Chambers admitted he killed Levin, but gave investigators a version of events that would set the stage for the good-looking man's defense.
He told investigators that he had killed Levin on accident after she had been trying to force him into unwanted, rough sex that had been hurting him.
“I couldn’t take it anymore and I managed to get my left hand free, so I kind of sat up a little and just grabbed at her. I just grabbed her neck as hard as I could and she just flipped over me and landed right next to the tree, and then she didn’t move,” Chambers said in his police confession included in the docu-series.
Chambers was arrested and charged with murder, but within days the press would pick up on Chambers’ version of events. Headlines claiming Levin had been the aggressor, interested in rough sex, filled the newsstands as Chamber’s well-known attorney began to make similar claims.
“She was attempting to perform sexual activity, which he asked her to desist from doing. When she didn’t, this tragedy ensued,” Litman said to the media at the time.
Linda Fairstein, who was a Manhattan assistant district attorney in the office’s sex crime division, said she had been shocked to see how the 18-year-old’s violent death had been misrepresented in the media.
“Jack Litman had flipped the story, saying that it was an accident and was taking it out of a murder charge down to an accidental death. It was so shocking. The world of the case was twisting and turning upside down,” she recalled in the five-part series.
Levin’s mother, Ellen Levin, believes Litman “planted” the headlines to make his client appear more favorable in the public — all the while destroying her daughter’s reputation.
“Jack Litman was extremely dangerous. He was very smooth, he was very bright, he had absolutely no mercy for Jennifer. It was all his client and his client was innocent,” she said.
News footage contained interviews with people on the street who weighed in on whether Chambers could have carried out a murder or criticized Levin for going into the park at night to have sex.
“The way that it was made out to be was that she just met this guy at a bar and you know, she went to Central Park with him at night,” her sister Danielle Levin said. “She never would have done anything like that. She knew him, you know, she trusted him.”
Levin’s friends at the time said in the series that she and Chambers had been casually dating throughout the summer before she was killed and that the pair had consensual sex before on a handful of occasions.
“Robert said Jennifer was this sort of aggressor and this attacker. It’s not accurate. The narrative that is out there about her life and who she was is not accurate,” her friend Jessica Doyle said. “People need to find out the truth about Jennifer.”
Friends and family instead described Levin as an outgoing and friendly teen, who was always trying to help others.
“I did know some of those people who were a bit out of control, partied and caused trouble,” Davis recently told Fox News in the wake of the docu-series airing. “I wouldn’t put her in that category. If anything, she was kind of a nerd. She was much more responsible than most of us were. She was funny, loyal and down to earth. Jennifer was the type of friend who was always there for her friends. She had a lot of friends, but she always found a way to make you feel special.”
But Litman would stop at nothing to alter that perception of Levin, using a defense that relied heavily on blaming the victim.
“If you are not zealous in representing your client, then you shouldn’t be in the courtroom,” he said of his legal tactics in a news clip in the series. “Zealous means that you do everything you can within the bounds of the law to represent your client.”
At one point, Litman subpoenaed Levin’s private journal, which he labeled a “sex diary.” A judge would later rule the journal couldn’t be used and that it did not contain anything about sex — but not before the story had already played out in the media.
“It was like choreographed. Everything was made to denigrate my daughter, even made up stories like that,” Levin's mother said.
Litman also arranged for Chambers to appear on the cover of New York Magazine in a blue suit and red tie, looking more like a male model than a man accused of murder.
Litman died in 2010 at the age of 66 after a battle with lymphoma, according to The New York Times. However, another member of Chambers’ legal team did address the team’s strategy more than three decades later in the docu-series.
“You can characterize it as 'blame the victim' defense. You can characterize it however you want, but we were going on what happened that evening. Jennifer Levin’s actions were in fact corroborated by her friends,” defense attorney Roger Stavis said, adding that Litman “had a job to do.”
Of course, there were some at the time who heavily criticized the defense team’s actions, including the Guardian Angels — a group of volunteers dedicated to crime prevention — who regularly picketed in front of the courthouse. One member even described the defense’s efforts as murdering Levin “a second time” by destroying her reputation.
But there wasn’t at all a public uproar.
“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," co-director Ricki Stern told USA Today. "And that’s important to reexamine in today’s day.”
Stern said she wasn’t sure what impact, if any, the recent #MeToo movement would have had on the case if it been tried today.
“It’s an interesting thing to consider. I don’t honestly know," she said. "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.'"
Levin’s friends and family are hoping that the new look into the highly publicized case will help give Levin her voice back and alter the narrative about who she was.
“I hope audiences understand Jennifer was a good girl who was excited to go to college,” Davis told Fox News. “… And I hope Jennifer’s family gets some peace of mind, knowing that some of her friends came forward to tell the real story.”
Chambers eventually accepted a plea deal that allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of five to 15 years in prison. He would serve the full 15-year sentence before he was released in 2003. But his freedom would be short-lived — in 2008, he was sentenced to 19 years behind bars for assault and selling drugs from his girlfriend’s apartment, according to Reuters.
Ellen Levin went on to become a lobbyist, passing 13 laws in 10 years to protect victims of crime.
“I’ll tell you, it wasn’t just me, it was me and Jen,” she said in the series.
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