New York City was quite a different place in the 1980s from the sanitized version we know now. Crime was high, due in part to crack cocaine's spread, and unemployment was twice today's rate. In this turbulent atmosphere, Linda Fairstein, chief of New York County's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, was poised to be something of a hero as she prosecuted the so-called "Preppy Murder" of 1986. But this also is the very same Linda Fairstein who pushed for the conviction of the Central Park Five just a few years later.
"There would be four or five murders a day in other parts of the city, and we would always say, 'Oh that's a drug murder. That one you don't pay attention to,' " Magee Hickey, a reporter for NBC 4 in 1986, says in the AMC docuseries The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park. "But if something happens in Central Park to a white person in the 1980s, everyone pays attention to it."
At the time, that something was the murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin, whose body was found behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the morning of August 26. Two days later, then-19-year-old Robert Chambers pleaded not guilty to her murder, telling police that he had accidentally killed her after she had been rough with him during sex. This is even though an autopsy revealed that she died from pressure applied to her throat for at least 20 seconds.
Fairstein became the lead prosecutor in the case, and her job was surprisingly difficult. Media coverage backed up the image of Chambers as a handsome, unlikely murderer, and his lawyer did much to paint Levin as a sex-crazed teen. The judge in the 1988 trial refused to allow DNA evidence from the denim jacket she believed Chambers used to strangle Levin.
After five days of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked, and Fairstein allowed Chambers to plead guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison, and served all 15 years.
"Unfortunately, jurors are still influenced by class and race," Fairstein told People in 1993. "One said Chambers didn’t look like a killer."
Despite that disappointment, Fairstein became something of a celebrity during that case. And when Trisha Meili was brutally raped and assaulted in Central Park in 1989, Jennifer Levin was on everyone's mind.
But while Levin was killed by someone she knew, police and prosecutors were solely focused on convicting a group of Black and Latino teenagers for the Central Park Jogger case. In Ava DuVernay's When They See Us, Fairstein is depicted as single-minded and racist in her pursuit of these boys.
"Every young black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman," Fairstein's character, played by Felicity Huffman, tells prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer in the series.
With no official record of such conversations, DuVernay did have to make up this dialogue, which Fairstein called "grossly and maliciously inaccurate" according to the New York Times. Still, a lawyer representing four of the wrongly convicted teenagers claimed to the Times that the series captured who Fairstein was.
Following the Central Park Five's convictions, Fairstein's fame rose even higher. "Linda can try a rape case in the morning, drink with cops after work and end the evening at the ballet," a law school classmate told People in a glowing 1993 profile. She went on to publish 24 books and was on the board of two organizations dedicated to supporting victims of sexual violence.
But she also remained a controversial figure.
Even after Matias Reyes confessed to the crime for which the Central Park Five were wrongly convicted in 2001, and DA Robert Morgenthau had charges against Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam vacated, Fairstein said she believed they still had something to do with the rape.
This summer, the popularity of When They See Us caused many to ask her publisher, Penguin, to drop Fairstein. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams called for her old cases to be re-examined. The former did happen, but not the latter.
The new AMC docuseries, however, focuses on what changed for the better after Levin's case, rather than the controversy around Fairstein.
"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," Fairstein says in The Preppy Murder. "It was the guy we hung out with, we wanted to be with because he was cool and he was extremely handsome."