Former New York City Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein found her record under question after Felicity Huffman portrayed her in When They See Us, the Ava DuVernay-directed Netflix series about the Central Park Five. Her decades of work in the sex crimes unit were the inspiration for Law & Order: SVU, but in the early Nineties she was also partly responsible for sending the Central Park Five — a group of black and Latino teens — to prison for a rape that, it turned out, they did not commit.
The Five were released in 2002 when a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime — his guilt backed up by DNA evidence. But when DuVernay dropped her show this summer, Fairstein was back in the public eye, and feeling the heat. Petitions and a social media campaign (#CancelLindaFairstein) circulated, calling on Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House to drop her from their roster of writers. Dutton, a Penguin subsidiary, did just that. She was also forced to vacate more than a few boards, including that of her alma mater, Vassar College.
In DuVernay’s series, Fairstein is decidedly the villain, but in AMC’s new five-part docuseries, The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park, Fairstein is much more sympathetic. That’s probably because that’s how she sees herself: as a champion for the victim. In the case of the killing of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin, she battled on the side of one of the most egregious victims of slut-shaming and victim-blaming in recent history. With the Central Park Five, she put on her cape for rape victim Trisha Meili — what she missed in that case was that Meili wasn’t the only victim involved. And therein lies the problem. The Preppy Murder is pretty black and white when it comes to right and wrong, however: in the case of Levin, Fairstein’s a scrappy assistant D.A. taking on the world in the face of sexism and misogyny. The show depicts another side of a hotly debated public figure, one that’s sometimes hard to square with Fairstein’s current status as persona non-grata.
In 1986, Jennifer Levin was killed in Central Park by Robert Chambers, a handsome, charming 19-year-old who claimed Levin was forcing him into rough sex when he accidentally killed her. Fairstein was an assistant district attorney at the Manhattan D.A.’s office at the time, making both prosecutor and victim the underdogs — in Fairstein’s case, she was untested when it came to homicide. “There were 180 lawyers on the staff,” Fairstein points out in the series. “Seven of those lawyers were women. No woman had ever tried a murder case in that office. There was the idea that this work was too tawdry for a woman.” She was only the second woman in her office to take on a homicide.
As for Levin, her reputation was brought into question again and again as the frenzy over the case grew: sex, death and the apparent killer himself, a man described as “handsome” so many times during the five-part series that the word loses its meaning. Friends and media just couldn’t believe that he would kill anyone — so they cast the blame on Levin, who was made out to be some kind of sex-crazed temptress.
Fairstein was unmoved by Chambers’ preppy image and his insistence that Levin was a sex fiend. She dug into his background and discovered that Chambers was not the elite young man that he seemed to be, but a drug addict who frequently stole from the families of his friends to support his habit. In fact, he ran with a man named David Fillyaw, who helped him rip off the homes of his rich acquaintances; Fillyaw was arrested in 1985 after he attempted to rape a woman and stabbed her repeatedly, leaving her for dead. He was convicted of attempted murder, attempted assault and two counts of burglary.
Fairstein found herself stymied again and again by Chambers and his legal team. She couldn’t bring up his drug use and burglaries in court because he never took the stand for her to cross-examine. Also, Fairstein was unable to present to the court the DNA testing she had done on Levin’s jean jacket, which found evidence of Levin’s blood and spit. Fairstein believed that Chambers had gagged and strangled her with the jacket, but DNA testing was in its infancy and the courted opted not to bring in that evidence.
Meanwhile, Chambers appeared on the cover of New York magazine kitted out like a Kennedy, while his attorney, Jack Litman, leaked false rumors of Levin’s “sex diary” to the press. In the end, the jury was taking too long to deliberate, and Levin’s family didn’t want to go through everything again should there be a mistrial. Chambers got five to 15 years for first degree manslaughter in a plea deal.
Throughout the docuseries, Fairstein consistently rallies for Levin; even today, she wishes she could have not only gotten justice for the young woman but saved her in the first place. At the end of the last episode, Fairstein strides into the New York City park, eyes locked on the tree under which teenage Levin was found dead in 1986. “I think we expect our monsters to step out from behind trees, strangers that your mother warns you about — and, in fact, it was the monster in our midst,” she intones. “The number of times I would wake up and just think: If I could just grab Jennifer Levin by the hand and say, ‘Don’t go into the park with him…’”
As she stands in Central Park, reflecting on the past, it’s hard not to think of Fairstein’s connection to the so-called Central Park Five — and not just because of the location. In both cases, the victim is a white woman: Levin and then, later, Trisha Meili. And, yes, in both cases, Fairstein is on the side of the women. Still, in the case of the Central Park Five, five men lost years of their lives to prison and Fairstein was to blame.
The former assistant D.A., however, disagrees. After the premiere of When They See Us, Fairstein stood by her previous work, penning an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. She takes aim at DuVernay’s miniseries in the piece, claiming that it both defamed her and misrepresented the innocence of the five teens. According to Fairstein, they may not have raped Meili, but they did commit other crimes during what she describes as a riot; she writes that more than 30 rioters injured more eight people, not just the jogger. While Fairstein agrees the men should be cleared of the rape, she says that their other alleged crimes should not be vacated.
Their alleged crimes aside, the treatment of the Five and Chambers was vastly different. Chambers was babied, while the Central Park Five — due to their status and the color of their skin — were treated with a far rougher hand. Now-President Donald Trump even took out newspaper ads calling for New York to adopt the death penalty after the jogger attack. While Trump was riling up the public about teen boys being put to death, Chambers was allowed to spend the night with his family before going to prison — and he was escorted there in a bulletproof vest. And while Five were exonerated after already serving years in prison, Chambers spent the maximum of 15 years behind bars (no good behavior on his part), and went back on drug charges in 2008; he will be locked up until 2024.
Taken side by side with the Central Park Five case, The Preppy Murder is frustrating — and not just because of the case itself. Fairstein is not a clear hero or villain, to be sure, but her involvement in these two cases throws into sharp relief the difference between how people of color and whites are treated when it comes to crime. As reporter Magee Hickey recalls in the docuseries, “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. But if something happened in Central Park to a white person in the 1980s everyone pays attention to it.” It’s an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come — and an apt description of the hypocrisy that still holds media and the legal system in its thrall.