A Killing in Central Park: The Preppy Murder Case
"Wild Sex Killed Jenny!"
The campaign to demolish the reputation of Jennifer Levin began almost on the day of the murder. Press reports on the case, which reflected a blatant bias in favor of Robert Chambers, bordered on the hysterical. Headlines like "Sex Play Got Rough," which appeared in the N.Y. Daily News on August 28, two days after the murder, were typical of the tabloid's view of the crime. From the very beginning, the press embraced the idea that Jennifer somehow caused her own death by her irresponsible behavior and by her "teenage vamp" image that was promoted and sustained by the print media. Chambers was seen, strangely enough, as a victim who was on an equal plateau with the dead Jennifer. The killing was a tragedy, not a murder.
Within a few days of the crime, the majority of the press corps was inclined to accept at face value, the statements of Chambers who said that he was defending himself against a sexual assault. Of course, the fact that both victim and suspect traveled in circles that most city dwellers never see was also a part of a story that one reporter called "irresistible." A slaying in Central Park that revolved around young good-looking people, sex and the socialite class was the kind of event that newspaper editors dream about, a story that made its own headlines. Stories about Chambers and Levin almost universally described them as gorgeous, rich and from an ill-defined upper level of society. Whether or not they were gorgeous is a matter of opinion. But they were not rich nor did their origins come from Manhattan's social register. The media's labeling of the event, as "The Preppie Murder," was also inappropriate since Chambers was not a "preppie." He had already attended college and was thrown out. His entire scholastic record was one of failure and disappointment.
On August 29, the N.Y. Daily News ran this headline: "How Jennifer Courted Death." There it was. It was now official, in a sense: Jennifer caused her own murder. The idea that was implanted in the public mind, and everything that followed afterwards, had to conform or in some way support this theory: a girl who drinks in a bar with a man late at night and goes to the park for sex, deserves what happens to her. Reporters from the city's newspapers, including the Times, who struggled to find some sort of moral lesson in the murder, followed this line of reasoning for months. And much of that reporting was the result of personal bias, as one N.Y. Times reporter said: "I felt so offended by the lifestyle that these kids lived." Robert Chambers received lots of good press. His arrest and indictment for the burglaries he committed, his past drug abuse and poor reputation among friends was conveniently ignored. In contrast, Levin's past was fair game for every kind of scrutiny and innuendo. It was only months later that stories began to appear that examined the negative past of Chambers.
But the damage was done. The groundwork was laid for a contentious legal battle that was at times, infuriating, hurtful and preposterous. On one side was a dedicated prosecutor, a champion for victim's rights and feminist causes. On the other was a brilliant trial lawyer, Harvard graduate and defender of the accused. And together, they would fight to a bitter end in which neither side could claim a total victory.