Did He Get Away With Murder?
For eight interminable days the family of Jennifer Levin paced the gloomy, malodorous hallways of Manhattan’s Criminal Courts Building, waiting for the jury to decide whether Robert Chambers, the confessed killer of their teenage daughter, was guilty of murder.
Then, on the morning of the ninth day, the jury informed the judge that it was at an impasse and that two jurors wanted to quit. After 11 weeks of testimony and courtroom infighting, the trial teetered on the brink of collapse. A mistrial seemed likely. Robert Chambers would have to be tried again—unless the prosecution and defense attorneys could work out a deal.
The sometimes heated discussions between the two sides went on behind closed doors. Finally, at 5:05 p.m. on Friday, March 25, lead defense counsel Jack Litman stood before the bench. “At this time, Your Honor,” he said, his strong baritone filling the hushed courtroom, “Mr. Chambers wishes to withdraw his plea of not guilty and enter a plea of guilty to first-degree manslaughter.” A mob of reporters bolted from their seats and pounded through the courtroom’s swinging doors. Jennifer’s mother, Ellen, 44, wept silently. Across the aisle, a few feet away from her, Chambers’ mother, Phyllis, swallowed hard and blinked back tears.
After Litman and prosecutor Linda Fairstein laid out the terms of the plea bargain—that the sentences for manslaughter and an unrelated burglary charge would amount to five to 15 years in prison—the hulking, 6’4″ Chambers heaved himself to his feet. “Is it true,” asked Justice Howard E. Bell, “that on Aug. 26, 1986, you intended to cause serious physical injury to Jennifer Levin and thereby caused Jennifer Levin’s death?”
“Your Honor,” said Chambers, shifting his weight restlessly, “looking back, I have to say yes, but in my heart I didn’t mean it to happen.”
The judge asked the question again.
“Yes, Your Honor,” Chambers replied softly, but he shook his head emphatically no. The courtroom was emptied, and he was released to spend one last night at home before beginning at least five years behind bars. Had he been convicted of murder, the sentence could have been as much as 25 years to life.
As the news swept over the city, many New Yorkers swiftly reached a different verdict: Chambers had choked the life out of Jennifer Levin and gotten off with a slap on the wrist.
Had the jurors been stymied by a lack of proof that Chambers intended to kill? Or had defense attorney Litman succeeded in playing to a belief on their part that a young, sexually active girl is somehow responsible for whatever befalls her? From the beginning, the victim had been on trial.
There were 1,582 homicides in New York City in 1986, but none so captivated the public as the killing of Jennifer Dawn Levin, 18, by Robert Chambers Jr., then 19, in the dark of an August night in Central Park. The “Preppy Murder” and the spotlight it cast on the fast life-style of the children of the rich dominated the front pages of the city’s tabloids.
Levin, the daughter of a partner in a lucrative Manhattan real-estate concern, had been voted “best looking” and credited with the “best figure” in her graduating class at the $9,000-a-year Baldwin School two months before. Chambers, who had graduated from the comparably expensive York Prep in 1984, had the well-pressed, clean-cut look of a man in a shirt ad. The two were widely depicted as a pair of pampered children whose mutual tragedy was a symptom of upper-class parental neglect. In fact, the description fit neither Chambers nor Levin.
Levin was rich, but she lived as if she were not. She worked after school and on vacations to buy her own clothes and to save money for college. No jaded sophisticate, she covered her walls with exuberant collages cut from fashion magazines, worried about how to talk to boys, listened dreamily to songs about lost love. She was not a symptom of anything. She was a girl like any other girl, and like no other girl. She was Jennifer Dawn Levin.
“Jennifer burst into beauty at 16,” says her father, Steven, 46. “Before that she was just a gangly kid with braces. She was the girl next door. This could’ve happened to anybody.”
Chambers was not rich but lived as if he were. His mother, a private duty nurse, and his father, Robert Sr., who worked for a videocassette distributor, reportedly had a combined income of less than $80,000. But Phyllis was active in upper-crust charity work and got her son into the Knickerbocker Greys, a fashionable marching society, as a boy. Later he bounced through a succession of prep schools, before being expelled from Boston University after his first semester. At the time of the killing, he had recently completed a residential drug-treatment program for cocaine and drinking, but by all accounts his drinking, at least, had continued. He had participated in a couple of burglaries in late 1985. He had no steady job, and his mother’s dream that he would become somebody, maybe even a senator, must have been fading well before it was dashed forever on that summer night in Central Park. His only real success was with young women, for whom he held a fatal attraction.
“His mother wanted him to be something he couldn’t be,” says Jack Dorrian, proprietor and father-confessor at the Upper East Side bar where Chambers and Levin had been on the night of the killing. “He was like an apple, a shiny apple, and when you bite into the thing, you find out there’s a worm in it.”
But on that August Monday night, Jennifer Levin’s eye was on the apple alone. When she and three girlfriends walked to Dorrian’s Red Hand bar, she expressed the hope that Chambers would be there. It was at the same bar, two months before, that he had first approached her. He called her “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” Their romance had never grown beyond a few brief liaisons, but according to her friend Larissa Thomson, Jennifer “wanted to go home with Chambers that night.”
At the Red Hand, a crowd of about 100 beautifully tanned “little men and women,” as Dorrian describes them, were in a giddy mood, reminiscing happily about their prep school years and eagerly discussing the college years to come. (Though the drinking age in New York is 21, phony IDs are widely used.) One of the bartenders that night was Geraldine Ferraro’s son, John Zaccaro Jr. Jennifer grabbed a Bay Breeze (vodka mixed with pineapple and cranberry juice) and made a beeline for Chambers. She reported to her friends that she told him, “I just want you to know the sex you and I had together was the best sex I’ve ever had in my life.” Chambers seemed displeased, perhaps because his then-girlfriend, Alex Kapp, was also in the bar. “Jen, you shouldn’t have said that,” he replied.
Levin’s friend Alexandra LaGatta would later reluctantly testify that Jennifer had told her that though Chambers “was good sexually, she didn’t like him as a person.” But Levin’s behavior at the Red Hand suggested otherwise. At 2:55 a.m., Jack Dorrian recalls, Jennifer looked unhappy. Dorrian, 55, takes a personal interest in his clientele, and he asked her what was wrong: “She says, ‘I’m in love.’ I says, ‘Who are you in love with?’ She says, ‘Robert Chambers.’ I said, ‘Forget about him. You can do better than that. Before you get married, you’ll have 20 different guys.’ She laughed and said, ‘I wish it was true, Mr. Dorrian.’ ”
At about 4 a.m., Chambers and Levin left the bar together and walked to Central Park, 15 minutes away. The park is dark and notoriously dangerous at night, yet the two walked behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art into a little grove of widely spaced hardwood trees where the street lights from an adjacent roadway cast a maze of dim shadows and all colors fade to shades of gray. It is an eerie, enchanted grove in the middle of the city, a good place for mystery, for romance, or for murder.
Two hours later, a passing bicyclist discovered Jennifer Levin’s twisted, battered, half-naked body lying beneath a tree. Directly across the road sat Robert Chambers, watching. A passerby would later testify that Chambers looked as though he’d been in “an industrial accident,” his face was so badly scratched. Only hours later, after Chambers had gone home to bed, did detectives pick him up and take him to the Central Park precinct for questioning.
At first he denied even having left the bar with Levin. He said the deep scratches on his face, chest and abdomen had been inflicted by his cat and that the open wounds on his hands were the result of an accident with a sander. Finally, after seven hours of questioning during which he never asked for a lawyer, Chambers admitted that he had gone to the park with Jennifer Levin, where, he claimed, he had “accidentally” killed her when she “molested” him.
In an hour-long statement videotaped at the police station, Chambers comes across as 6’4″ of bad attitude, insisting petulantly that he was the blameless victim of an “insane” Jennifer Levin. He expressed little concern for her, and no grief.
This was Chambers story: It was Levin who insisted that they walk into the park. There, he said, he told her that “I wasn’t interested in her at all.” Upon hearing this, she “freaked out,” scratched his face and spat at him. “I was really pissed off,” he said. Then she took off her panties and went to urinate under a tree. When she returned, she had calmed down. She started massaging his shoulders and told him that he would “look cuter” tied up. He allowed her to tie his hands behind his back with her panties. When she squeezed his genitals painfully while sitting on his chest, Chambers claimed, he managed to free his left arm and yoked her from behind around the neck as hard as he could. “I was in a frenzy” from the pain, he said. She flipped over him and landed under the tree. “I didn’t mean to hurt her,” he insisted. “She was just too pushy. She molested me in the park.”
Rejecting the notion that the 200-lb. Chambers could have been “molested” by the 5’7″, 135-lb. Levin, the DA questioning him at the station points out, “She’s dead. You’re not. Something happened.”
But Chambers is adamant. “The most important thing,” he concludes, “is that I told her I didn’t want anything to do with her.”
Chambers was wrong. The most important thing was that he had killed Jennifer Levin. He did not seem to care about that. A detective overheard him blurting out to his father, “That f—— bitch! Why didn’t she leave me alone?”
From the very beginning it seemed that Litman, 44, would defend his client by placing Jennifer Levin on trial. In 1978 he had succeeded in having another accused killer acquitted of murder in the hammer slaying of his girlfriend by suggesting that the victim had driven him to it. Litman began the Chambers case in a similar vein. He demanded the right to examine a diary in which, he said, Jennifer Levin had chronicled “kinky and aggressive sexual activity.” No such “sex diary” existed, but, foreseeably, Litman’s references to it made headlines. ” ‘Jenny Killed in Wild Sex,’ ” screamed the New York Post paraphrasing him.
Throughout the trial, Litman hammered away, albeit softly, at the defenseless girl’s reputation. In his opening statement, he suggested disingenuously that “no one here is faulting Jennifer Levin for aggressively pursuing or sexually pursuing Robert Chambers.” In his closing argument 11 weeks later, Litman said, “It was Jennifer who was pursuing Robert for sex…that’s why we wound up with this terrible tragedy.”
Prosecutor Linda Fairstein said Litman never stopped pushing the idea “that [Jennifer] was using Chambers sexually. He was playing to the unconscious feeling that it’s still not acceptable for a girl to be interested in sex.”
Levin’s family felt their daughter was constantly under attack, and the spectacle was excruciating for them. “First Chambers murders her, then he defiles her, then his lawyer tries the case in the press,” Ellen says now. “It was a year and a half of being slapped in the face.” Adds Jennifer’s sister Danielle, 23: “Litman killed her all over again.”
“I hope this case destroys Jack Litman,” says the victim’s father, Steven, “because evil attracts evil, and he is an evil defense lawyer.”
Litman’s co-counsel, Roger Stavis, disagrees. “We did not attack the victim at all,” he says. “What we did was present evidence to corroborate the videotaped statement that Mr. Chambers made to the police before he had an attorney.”
In another critically important trial gambit, Litman declined to have Chambers testify and thus kept his client’s cocaine and burglary habits out of evidence. “Without knowing he’s a dropout, a drug addict and a thief, the jury would think up till then he was a good kid,” Ellen Levin points out. “The jury’s supposed to have the truth. That’s what justice is all about. There should be enough room for the victim to have a fair trial as well as the defendant.”
The eight-man, four-woman jury focused on the issue of intent. Prosecutor Fairstein had argued that Levin and Chambers had had a quarrel and that Chambers had deliberately killed her. “Was there enough proof to show that there was more than the intent to cause physical injury and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the intent to kill?” asked one juror. “You’re talking about getting into somebody’s mind. Maybe none of us were qualified to do that. Maybe nobody is.”
The jurors struggled to reach unanimous agreement on the murder charge before discussing lesser offenses. They voted by secret ballot between 20 and 30 times. On the eighth day they had voted 9-3 for a murder conviction, but moments before Chambers made his deal, there was a 7-5 majority for acquittal.
Levin’s parents, who were divorced 15 years ago, and Steven Levin’s second wife, Arlene, faced the courtroom ordeal together. “I had to force myself every day to get down to court,” says Ellen. “I owed it to my daughter. I felt that Jennifer was with me.”
Meanwhile, the Levins, who consented to the plea bargain, try to find some justice for their daughter in the outcome. “The most important thing is that Robert Chambers had to stand up in court and admit he was lying,” says Steven. “That negates his whole story.”
But an unrepentant Chambers would deny Jennifer’s family even that meager satisfaction. “The plea,” says his lawyer Stavis, “is a vindication of our position that Robert Chambers’ account was true.” Chambers admits only that he intentionally injured Levin, says Stavis, and maintains that “he acted in response to what she was doing to him at the time.”
“I don’t care if he stands by his story,” responds Steven Levin. “I know his story is not what happened. It would be easier for me if I could believe it was an accident, because it’s so painful to think that Jennifer spent the last minutes of her life with someone who didn’t value her.
“I don’t think the punishment fit the crime, but I don’t think there’s any punishment that’s going to change what happened to us. You can’t measure Jennifer’s death in terms of years. What number of years pays back a life? A hundred years wouldn’t be enough.”