Who’s on Trial? The Chambers-Levin Murder Case
October 27, 1987
On the day Jennifer Levin died, Detective John Lafferty told a fable of good and evil to the man later charged with her murder. Robert Chambers sat in an office at the Central Park precinct “helping” the detectives, since he’d been one of the last people seen with Levin at Dorrian’s Red Hand the night before. Lafferty didn’t consider him a suspect. Chambers was so “sincere,” “cool,” “comfortable.”
In fact, Lafferty would later take it upon himself to tell Chambers that Levin was not missing, but dead. Lafferty couldn’t have known that Chambers had watched the police find Levin’s body that morning. Chambers was still hours away from admitting anything as he put his head back, looked at the ceiling, and said, “Oh, no. How did she die?”
He was already the two Roberts who will appear at the trial — the nice guy and the pathological liar. A victim of circumstance, says his lawyer. A murderer, says the prosecutor. It makes the story Lafferty told him — the legend that gave the Red Hand its name — into an allegory of sorts: There was once an Irish king with two sons, one good and one bad. To choose who would succeed him, the king asked his sons to race from a boat to the shore; whoever touched it first would win. The bad son swam faster and seemed certain to touch first. So the good son cut off his own hand and threw it ashore.
That night at the precinct, Chambers began telling the story of Levin’s death that would capture the prurient interest of a city. As the Post boiled it down later in one of their classic headlines: “Wild Sex Killed Jenny.” Chambers said that Jennifer Levin had hurt him during rough sex — an encounter she’d insisted upon — causing him to accidentally strangle her. As the trial unfolds, however, two stories will be told. Defense lawyer Jack Litman will present Chambers’s version, a story about sex. Prosecutor Linda Fairstein will tell a story about violence.
Trials don’t usually have that Perry Mason moment in which the True Story spills spontaneously from some wretch on the witness stand. Trials have less to do with discovery than with persuasion. In The People v. Robert Chambers, prosecution and defense will interpret the same evidence to mean completely different things, will characterize the silent principals — Chambers and Levin — in completely different ways. Trials are a matter of competing narratives, our last oral tradition. With jurors forbidden to take notes, courtroom impressions are crucial, and believability becomes more important than truth. Which lawyer will be the more compelling storyteller? For whom will the carefully selected audience of jurors suspend its disbelief?
Of course, a story like Chambers’s doesn’t take place in a vacuum. In trying to sell it, Litman has eager help from the culture and its prejudices — sexism, anti-Semitism, fear of female sexuality. That political subtext has made The People v. Robert Chambers into more than a case of alleged homicide. Chambers and Levin had had sex before the night of the 25th. And even now, women who want sex are still a little suspect, “asking for it.” The perception that a woman is sexually active translates easily into the conclusion that she’s sexually aggressive. The Chambers/Litman story is that of a “bad girl” who gets what she deserves and a helpless man defending himself from her sexual voraciousness.
This version of events also plays right into anti-Semitic stereotypes. Imagine the story going over as easily with Chambers a Jew and Levin an Upper East Side Catholic girl. It’s no coincidence that Litman involved the Catholic church in Chambers’s defense right from the start — getting bail application letters from a priest and the archbishop of Newark, then arranging for Chambers to live in an Upper West Side rectory once he was out on bail. It all feeds into the image Litman wants: Robert Chambers is the former altar boy, while Jennifer Levin is the sexually neurotic Other. Despite the preponderance of physical evidence, Fairstein will have her work cut out for her.
Anyone charged with murder would do well to hire Jack Litman. In 13 years as a defense attorney, Litman has lost only once on a murder case. For everyone else facing a homicide rap, he’s gotten either acquittal, dismissal, or conviction on a reduced charge. Litman won a self-defense acquittal, for example, for Bronx policeman Kevin Durkin, who shot and killed two unarmed Hispanic men in a bar, after — Durkin said — they claimed to be FALN members and one seemed to be reaching for a gun. Litman also handles a lot of white-collar crime. Last year the New York State Bar Association named him their outstanding criminal practitioner.
Now 44 years old, Litman began his career in the Manhattan district attorney’s office in 1968. He lost only one case while working there and got some high-profile convictions — one against black militant H. Rap Brown, one against “rogue cop” William Phillips. Despite his success, the job of prosecutor didn’t appeal to Litman. He was there to get trial experience. He once told an interviewer why he prefers the defense. “There’s no comparison in the way you can feel when you get an acquittal as opposed to the way you feel when you get a conviction as a prosecutor.… Even if it’s someone who deserves conviction you don’t get the feeling of total emotion and satisfaction. I used to only handle the most venal, egregious killers, and I felt it was a job well done, but it wasn’t the same. As a defense lawyer I get that same satisfaction even if I know they’re killers.”
Linda Fairstein, on the other hand, enjoys the prosecutor’s role; head of the Manhattan D.A.’s Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit since 1976, she usually handles rape cases. She’s also deputy chief of the Trial Division. That’s the capacity in which she’s been assigned to this — her first homicide, now taking the same “blame-the-victim” turn common to rape cases before the shield laws went into effect (to limit the defense attorney’s use of a victim’s sexual history). “The cases that I’ve worked on for most of my career have been devastatingly traumatic crimes,” Fairstein says, “particularly all the sex offenses. Most victims come to the criminal justice system in that area not expecting to be helped.”
Fairstein, 40, has an excellent courtroom record of her own. She’s lost only twice, while the unit she supervises has an 80 per cent conviction rate. In 1986, she was the subject of a 20/20 segment titled “The Woman Rapists Fear.” She began working for the Manhattan district attorney’s office in 1972; one of the people who trained her was Jack Litman. “I learned a lot from him,” she says. “He really was one of the best and the brightest here. He often gave me advice on cases, and I enjoyed watching him in the courtroom.”
Litman declined to be interviewed for this article, telling me on the phone that, regarding the case, he could only say what was on public record and that, regarding himself, enough had been written already. Fairstein spoke with me, but declined to answer any questions on jury selection, evidence, witnesses, or the tactics of Jack Litman. Whatever cards Fairstein intends to play, she hasn’t revealed them to the media; while Litman’s tack has been to use the media when he can and to shut them out when they don’t serve him. After generating most of the sensational stories about this case, Litman argued last May that the press should be barred from the suppression hearings — because they had published sensational stories.
By the time Robert Chambers emerged from the Central Park precinct in handcuffs, he’d been there for nearly 11 hours. Jack Litman spent months this summer trying to wipe out those 11 hours, exposing them like film to sunlight in the hope that they’d disappear into the realm of inadmissible evidence. He called for a pretrial suppression hearing. From May till mid-July, he and Fairstein carefully, tediously re-created the time Chambers had spent with police on August 26, 1986.
Litman had good reason to try erasing what he could, since, according to detectives, his client had told them three different stories about the night Jennifer Levin died: that he’d left Dorrian’s alone, gone home, and his cat had scratched him; that he’d left Dorrian’s with Jennifer Levin but parted from her on 86th Street after they argued, and she had scratched him; that he’d left with Jennifer Levin for Central Park, where the rough sex/accidental death occurred. Detectives put she last version into writing, and Chambers reiterated it on videotape.
During the hearings, Litman made two entirely different arguments. If the judge bad bought both of them, he would have wiped out every word Chambers had said at the precinct. First, Litman claimed that his client had been illegally held, that therefore his oral/written and videotaped statements could not be admitted as evidence. Then, Litman argued that he himself had never received “formal and actual notice” of, for example, that story about 86th Street or remarks like “How did she die?” — so none of that could be admitted either.
Fairstein maintained that Chambers arrived at the precinct house knowing exactly where Jennifer Levin was, that he intended to fool the police, and that he could have called a lawyer or his parents at any time. The prosecution contended that they had given the defense proper notice, that a comment like “How did she die?” did not qualify as a “new statement.”
On October 16, Judge Howard Bell ruled to suppress nothing that Chambers had said. The videotape, however, will be edited to delete the expressions of incredulity made by Assistant District Attorney Stephen Saracco, who interrogated Chambers.
In this hearing and in the pretrial maneuvering that began shortly after Robert Chambers’s arrest last year, Jack Litman has consistently presented the picture of a young man victimized at every turn: assaulted by Jennifer Levin, tricked by detectives, deprived of his constitutional rights, even forced by an acquaintance to participate in burglaries. Again and again during testimony from the detectives involved, Litman bristled with indignation that Chambers had spent so many hours in a little room, with no lawyer present, and that his father had not been allowed to speak to him until one in the morning, after arriving at six. By the time Litman summed up on August 10, Chambers had become a defendant “prevented from testifying.” It was Litman, of course, who had “prevented” him.
Litman needs to give Chambers this victim persona in order to sell his story of rough sex verging on assault. Linda Fairstein will develop an entirely different picture at trial: that of a violent struggle in which the real victim died. She characterizes Chambers as “a chronic thief, a pathological liar, and a very troubled young man with an extensive criminal history.”
At the time of his arrest in August 1986, Chambers had a lawyer, Pete Putzel (retained for him by his mother), because he’d become a suspect in a string of Upper East Side burglaries. That spring, he’d spent about five weeks in a drug rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota; the problem was cocaine. But, as Detective Michael McEntee testified during the hearings, “It was common knowledge around Dorrian’s bar, that although Robert Chambers had been through rehabilitation, he was still quite heavily using cocaine.” In October 1985 and again in May 1986, a Church of Scientology workshop rejected Chambers as a member for “failure to meet church standards of character and behavior.” After the murder trial, he’ll face a burglary trial.
Chambers’s account of Levin’s death has always sounded ludicrous to me. As he related it to Detective McEntee, the arresting officer, Levin “got insane” when he said he thought of her as just a friend; she knelt in front of him, scratched his face, spit on him, and bit his fingers, till he jumped up and pushed her away; she went off to urinate in the bushes and told him when she returned, “You’d look cuter tied up”; she bound his hands with her underpants, pushed him down, forced his pants down around his knees, sat on his face and began to play with him; straddled him (facing his feet), hit his dick with a stick and squeezed his balls; he cried out in pain and a passing jogger yelled, “Is anything wrong?”; Levin said, “Shhh,” and jerked him off once the jogger passed, then cackled, and dug her fingers into his chest and again squeezed his balls until he was forced, with fatal consequences, to stop her. He flipped her over his right shoulder. As Litman told the court during arraignment last August 28: “He [Chambers] said, ‘Let’s stop.’ She said, ‘No!’ And when she refused, he leaned up and pulled her back, causing the fatal trauma.”
But Chambers’s changed some of the details in this account when he spoke with other detectives. To Detective Martin Gill, he said first that Levin had tackled him and later that she’d hugged him and laid him down on the ground. To Lieutenant John Doyle Chambers said he’d finally grabbed Levin by the neck and pulled her up as he stood, then dropped her. Nothing about a flip over the shoulder. In a bench conference held out of earshot but put on the record, Litman complained that this was the first time he’d heard that version, and therefore it must be suppressed. He told Judge Bell, in his final argument this August as the suppression hearing ended, that these differences would be “the core of the district attorney’s case.”
But other evidence may be more potent. Robert Chambers — at six foot four and 220 pounds — had supposedly been tied up, pushed down, and straddled by a woman who was five foot eight and weighed 120. His story doesn’t account for some of the physical evidence. Initial reports in both the Times and the Post said Levin was found with her bra wrapped around her neck. The Times quoted police captain Harold Wischerth: “Her clothes were disheveled and some pushed to the upper part of her body.” At first, police thought she’d been sexually assaulted. They also thought, given the position of her body, that she’d been dragged there and dumped. Court papers filed on the public record refer to bite marks on Levin’s face and shoulder, facial bruising, abrasions and contusions on lower body areas, and metallic flecks from Chambers’s watch embedded in the abrasions on her neck and chin.
As for Chambers’s injuries, his fingers had been so badly bitten he was difficult to fingerprint. The prosecution will contend that Jennifer Levin fought for her life.
The defense began to develop Chambers’s side of the story in the media last fall, implying that Levin’s out-of-control sexuality led to her death. Last November, Litman filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, putting on the public record Chambers’s complaint to detectives that “she’s having her way with me.” (“Chambers: I Was Raped” read the ensuing headline in the Post.)
The next day, Litman charged that Levin had kept a “sex diary” to record her “kinky and aggressive sexual activity… with many lovers.” On Thanksgiving eve, Litman served a subpoena on the Levin family to obtain this book. He had learned of it, he claimed, from Linda Fairstein — a claim she angrily denied as “bizarre and outrageous.” At that point, she hadn’t even seen the diary.
Nor, of course, had Jack Litman. But, by claiming that such a chronicle existed, he reinforced the sexual-adventuress image he needs for his defense. By the time the judge read the diary two months later and ruled that it contained no relevant information, “sex diary” had become a catchphrase irrevocably linked in the public mind with Jennifer Levin.
Linda Fairstein has spoken to more than 100 young people who knew Levin, and insists, “That sexually aggressive stuff is just wrong.” Through these interviews, Fairstein has assembled a different composite picture: “Vibrant, warm, fun-loving,” with “a host of loyal friends.… She was socially very outgoing, but there’s absolutely no evidence for her being sexually aggressive.”
But with its sex, violence, and preppy milieu, the case is a media natural, and Litman has had no trouble publicizing his version of reality. Chambers’s titillating “rough sex” story is practically folklore by now. It appeared as a given, for example, in the May issue of Mademoiselle where an article called “Rough Sex Gets Real” declared: “The most publicized case of such out-of-control sex, of course [emphasis added] is the Robert Chambers/Jennifer Levin murder case. That extreme result is admittedly rare, but one problem with rough sex games is that they can sometimes lead to gradual escalation…”
Litman’s tactics in this case echo what he did in 1978 with the so-called “Yale murder.” His client Richard Herrin had admitted hammering Bonnie Garland to death as she slept in her parents’ home. She had wanted to end her relationship with Herrin, thus causing him, Litman argued, “extreme emotional disturbance.” Dr. Willard Gaylin, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, analyzed Litman’s brilliantly executed defense in his book The Killing of Bonnie Garland: “To protect Richard, Bonnie must somehow be tainted. Her natural seductiveness will be seen as sexual entrapment, and her mature awareness of the limits of their relationship will be labeled betrayal. Her character will be — gently — impugned. To relieve Richard’s culpability the defense must find someone to share the guilt. Bonnie must somehow share the responsibility for her own death. Bonnie, too, was on trial.” The jury found Richard Herrin not guilty of murder. He was convicted on a reduced charge of manslaughter.
“I like to think that I’m more intelligent than most of the prosecutors I’ve faced,” Litman told Gaylin. “My arguments are therefore going to sound more reasonable. Sincerity is my big key. I come across terribly sincere.”
Each morning during this summer’s hearings, the camera crews would wait behind police lines, sometimes for hours, for their 10 seconds’ footage of the Preppy Slay Suspect. They were recording each day’s jacket and tie, since Chambers was always silent and without affect. Jack Litman had given him the job of carrying some thick, three-ring binders and a book on penal law. Chambers had slimmed down since I’d first seen him in January, though he’s still a notably large man. (His weight at the time of Levin’s death is bound to come up at trial.) And throughout the summer, he remained pale, even pasty.
Inside the courtroom, he took notes on a legal pad during testimony. Sometimes he peered back over his left shoulder to see who was out there. The media filled a couple of rows. The family of Jennifer Levin filled another. Those significant moments reported in both the News and the Post — when Mr. Levin stared Chambers down — eluded me. I’ve never seen the Preppy blush.
Fairstein and Litman sometimes chatted quietly, congenially, waiting for the judge to arrive. Once the session started, they would argue or needle or attack.
There were occasional droll moments in these grim proceedings. One day Litman pressed a detective to recall when he’d first met Linda Fairstein. Had it been last August 28 or was it the 29th? The detective was positive he’d met her the 29th — a date, Litman claimed, when Fairstein had been out of town. “So — you remember meeting a nonexistent person who represented herself to be Linda Fairstein?” he asked sarcastically. Fairstein got up and objected. To the word “nonexistent.”
The hot case would sink into cool tedium as each lawyer picked at the other’s witnesses, feeling out the tiniest cracks in order to open holes. These are some of Litman’s questions to various officers called by the prosecution: “Where did you park your car?” “How many detectives were working on the case at 10 a.m.?” “Mr. Chambers was dressed how?” Here are some posed by Fairstein to Chambers’s father, the most important defense witness: “Did you have any conversation with the person who escorted you to the other building?” “How many people were in that room?” “Were they uniformed?” Each lawyer tried to undermine the credibility of the other’s witnesses. Each concluded the hearings by implying that the other’s witnesses had lied.
But they have very different styles. Fairstein is methodical and direct, while Litman is emotional, not just percolating with apparent rage but trying to arouse emotions in the witnesses and in his audience. This keeps him the center of attention in the courtroom. Because Fairstein is cool and Litman combative, she looked at times like an underdog sparring with a bully. This made her seem both more sympathetic and more reasonable. And it never got Litman anything. She was never thrown off or intimidated. Litman was more thorough than Fairstein, much more thorough than he needed to be. To a detective who’d gone to Chambers’s apartment, for example, he described the vestibule of the building — the mailboxes here, the buzzers there. It was quite unnecessary, but in the midst of the histrionics, it creates an impression: “I’ve got the facts.” And where Fairstein would get sarcastic with a witness, Litman would show outright contempt.
When he cross-examined the arresting officer, Michael McEntee, Litman implied that he had failed to learn even the simplest procedures at the Police Academy. This is McEntee’s first homicide case, and he admitted a bit sheepishly that he’d never before used the particular Miranda-warnings form he’d had Chambers initial. With disdainful triumph, Litman pointed out that McEntee, in fact, was not supposed to have asked for initials, but for “Yes” or “No” or “I don’t understand” in the blanks following the famous questions. (“You have the right to remain silent. Do you understand?” Etc.) Belittling people is another emotional hook. It can provoke anger.
Or erode self-confidence. Detective Lafferty was a talker, garrulous on the witness stand where others had been relatively terse. Replying to questions from Thomas Kendris, Fairstein’s assistant, the detective peppered his anecdotes with “So I says to him, I says.…” But as Litman began to query him on what he hadn’t done during his investigation — implying dereliction — Lafferty became monosyllabic.
Litman then declared to Lafferty: “When you told Mr. Chambers that Jennifer Levin was dead, he put his hand to his head and said, ‘Oh no,’ and started to cry.”
The detective said Chambers put his head back, looked at the ceiling, and said, “Oh, no. How did she die?”
“You don’t remember saying before to Mr. Kendris, ‘How could she die?’ ” Litman demanded, looking down at his legal pad.
Lafferty looked stunned and puzzled. “No,” he said.
“But of course what you said to Mr. Kendris before was the truth?” Litman smirked.
“If I misspoke…” began Lafferty, who now seemed unsure of himself. Litman then went on to something more crucial: “Robert Chambers, according to you, said something about a case where, according to you, he was a witness?” (Chambers had told Lafferty that he was a “character witness” in the investigation of those Upper East Side burglaries.) “Isn’t it a fact that the reason he mentioned the other case is that he was a suspect in the other case?” (No.) “That he had a lawyer?” (No.)
Litman’s tactics failed to unearth anything. But with every detective who testified for the prosecution, he returned to this central contention — that Chambers had been denied access to his lawyer and to his parents. Who, in Litman’s parlance, became living archetypes — the Father and the Mother. To every detective, he would invariably put some form of the questions: “Did you see the Father? Did you hear there’d been a phone call from the Mother?” To every detective, he applied the moral weight of an injured party. Did police have probable cause to detain our client in ONE ROOM during an 11-HOUR period? He successfully drew attention away from the person who was spending those 11 hours in the morgue. Anger rang dramatically from his voice. He would pace with a stiff-shouldered gait, then stop dead and lower his voice to deliver a line like “Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Detective.”
Litman creates a defense out of relatively simple ideas, often repeated. He doesn’t concern himself with making a logical argument and never has. In the Herrin trial, for example, Richard Herrin said he’d felt “no emotion” when he killed Bonnie Garland, yet Litman was still able to convince a jury that Herrin had felt “extreme emotional disturbance.” How did he do that? Litman said, “I had a very good group of jurors. Jurors who were really into wanting to know why a person would do this kind of thing…” His story had shaped all the testimony and the murder itself into an answer to that question. He’d played straight to the hearts, not the minds, of those jurors. He’d created tremendous sympathy for his client. Litman read the love letters Herrin had written to the woman he would hammer to death, and, as he later described it, “I had people crying in the courtroom.”
Linda Fairstein is less theatrical in style, and, as prosecutor, she has less room for “creativity.” She bears the burden of proof. During the hearings, she was more successful than Litman, however, in methodically unraveling key testimony.
The defense had called Chambers’s parents (who are separated); his lawyer on the burglary rap, Pete Putzel; and an Officer Diomede of the Central Park precinct. Chambers Sr., who had waited in Diomede’s office on the night of the 26th, was the only defense witness who offered anything damaging — though Litman produced Diomede by subpoena with a dramatic flourish one afternoon.
In Phyllis Chambers, Litman had a defense lawyer’s dream — the living paradigm of innocence. The Mother, a private duty nurse, projected an air of fragility as she spoke, quietly and in a noticeable brogue, addressing the prosecutor as “Madame Fairstein” and her son’s lawyer as “Sir.” On both days of her testimony, she broke down, creating headlines. Fairstein, however, seemed incredulous at some of her assertions — like the news that The Mother “barely noticed” the scratches on her son’s face. But Fairstein was careful with The Mother. To attack her was to attack the angel of mercy incarnate.
Besides, The Father’s testimony was what counted. Chambers Senior told Litman that he had gone to the Central Park precinct at 6 to see his son and “to make sure he saw his lawyer.” According to both Phyllis Chambers and Pete Putzel, Robert Chambers had been instructed never to speak to any police officer without calling his lawyer.
The Father testified that he’d ended up in Diomede’s office in an antebuilding. There, he testified, he’d told the policeman, “I want to see my son. He has a lawyer, and he should see his lawyer.” Diomede, in charge of the police auxiliary program, had nothing to do with the homicide investigation, and in fact, left at 7 for duty in Queens. He testified that The Father had asked him if he thought his son needed a lawyer. “I said to him, if he wanted, he could hold off to see how things developed… I didn’t know what his son was actually involved in.”
The Father’s chronicle was a bit vague. He said that at about 10 p.m. “a voice” told him his son would be finished soon. Then, at about 11:15, Lt. Doyle and “another man” found him to tell him that his son would be arrested for murder. He was still not permitted to see his son, who was now “busy” with Detective Sheehan.
As Fairstein began to cross-examine The Father, Litman moved his chair away from his table, so that he was seated in front of the judge. He’d done the same thing when she cross-examined The Mother. Perhaps this made it easier to jump up and object.
Litman got up repeatedly, objecting to particular questions. (“Not germane to this hearing. Putzel’s card. That’s germane.”) Objecting when she rephrased a question. (“He just answered that, Judge.”) Objecting when she probed into what he hadn’t done. (“Next it’ll be did he climb over a fence and play basketball.”) She wanted to make a point, of course, about what the Father hadn’t done. She didn’t think he’d ever said the name “Pete Putzel” or “My son has a lawyer, and he should see his lawyer.”
Fairstein tried to get him to describe the officers he’d talked to, like the “voice” who’d said his son would be finished soon. “It must have been a welcome voice,” Fairstein said sarcastically. “You’d been there four hours. Didn’t you try to match that voice with a person?” Chambers Senior said, “No, I felt reassured.” In fact, he couldn’t recall any names or describe any officers (but Diomede) he said he’d talked to about a lawyer. But he did remember Sheehan and Doyle. Detective Sheehan, it turned out, was an old friend — someone he used to see, he said, three times a week.
Fairstein asked if he’d said the name “Putzel” to either Sheehan or Doyle. He said he didn’t recall. She backed off, asked about a few other details, and reapproached. “The only names of officers you remember were Sheehan and Doyle?” This was so. “Did you say to either of them the name ‘Putzel’? ” He had not, he admitted. “Did you tell either of them that night that your son had a lawyer?” He had not. “The only ones you talked to about it were officers you can’t describe and whose names you don’t know?” she concluded.
Though Litman jumped up to mention Diomede, Fairstein had clearly undermined The Father’s credibility. It was subtle, though. And it didn’t make headlines.
Once the trial begins, Linda Fairstein will have the job of proving Chambers guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Litman’s strategy will be to create that doubt around any testimony or evidence that doesn’t suit his story. If possible, he’ll raise new issues in order to create new doubts. I believe that’s why he asked the court’s permission in July for his medical experts to dissect a section of Levin’s spine, suggesting that she may have died of a spinal injury. The autopsy found that she had been strangled. But if Litman could create uncertainty about that, he could create uncertainty about the murder itself. Fairstein argued that tests had already shown no injuries to the spine, and that dissection could even damage it, leading to an inaccurate conclusion. On August 8, Judge Bell ruled against Litman, saying that he had failed to show why the original autopsy was insufficient.
With the “sex diary,” the “spinal injury,” and the suppression hearings themselves, Litman has continually put the prosecution on the defensive. Fairstein has taken the offensive herself by investigating Chambers for his alleged burglaries. But none of this information can be introduced at the murder trial — nor can his drug history — unless Chambers takes the stand. The defendant’s rights and future are at stake. While, as Litman pointed out during the “diary” episode, Jennifer Levin no longer has any rights.
The essential fact of a murder trial is that the victim isn’t there, and feelings center on the defendant. It’s his story that gets told, then debated. Gaylin felt, in the Herrin case, that the prosecutor should have become an advocate for Bonnie Garland. Instead, he had correctly pointed out the flaws in Litman’s defense, but his argument was technical and he made it coolly. “Juries will form a general impression from an oral presentation that will smooth over logically inconsistent details, particularly when told by a forceful, impassioned, and sincere advocate,” said Gaylin.
Linda Fairstein won’t make this mistake. “We want [Jennifer Levin] to be very much alive in that courtroom,” she said. Fairstein has said she will establish a motive for Levin’s murder. She won’t say now what that is. By law, she doesn’t even need to provide one. But part of Litman’s defense will be that Chambers had no motive, that he was driven to it by extraordinary circumstance.
The story each lawyer tells will be built around the physical evidence. The Medical Examiner has said steady pressure was applied to Levin’s neck for at least 20 seconds, far too long for an impulsive gesture. Litman maintains that death could have occurred in as little as two seconds, the time more appropriate to an accident. He has hired former medical examiner Dominick DeMaio, who will testify that Levin’s injuries were consistent with Chambers’s story.
Litman will continue to develop the picture of the sexually aggressive 18-year-old pursuing the disinterested young man who had to fight off her advances. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to get the diary again, even now that the judge has ruled it irrelevant. Litman never shrinks from re-arguing when a decision goes against him. And in this case the point would be to raise the idea of a “sex diary” with the jury. Last April, The National Law Journal reported him following “leads about Levin’s sex life and men with whom she may have had intercourse.” Fairstein, meanwhile, points out that in the 8000 sexual assault cases that have gone through her office over the last 10 years, Chambers is the first man to report being assaulted by a woman — and one who weighed 100 pounds less at that. Fairstein will do everything she can to keep Litman from introducing Levin’s sexual history at trial. “It’s not relevant to the events of August 25th and 26th at all,” says Fairstein. “We’re gonna fight for her.”
The intense public interest surrounding this case now extends beyond the early prurient reactions, beyond the photogenic face of Robert Chambers, beyond the upscale setting. The death of Jennifer Levin touched a nerve, particularly after the defense began trying to excuse it.
Last November, a few women felt compelled to form a group called Justice for Jennifer, saying they would speak for this maligned victim who could no longer speak for herself. The Guardian Angels held demonstrations outside Chambers’s home and Litman’s office “to protest the sleazy tactics Litman has used to murder Jennifer Levin a second time.”
One day this summer, a woman got into the courthouse elevator wearing a large homemade button that said: “Although Litman’s tactics may be deemed ethical by lawbook guidelines, I still think they’re sleazy.” I asked her what group she was part of. “None,” she replied. “It just upsets me. I don’t believe any of it.” So she occasionally drove down from her house in Westchester to attend the hearings. Initially, that headline, “Chambers: I Was Raped,” was what got to her. Then, she said, she was Catholic, and it really bothered her that the Church would support Chambers so readily, particularly when it had done its best to make her feel guilty about abortion. And she couldn’t stand it that Litman would try to use Levin’s sex life against her.
“I was never a supporter of the women’s movement,” she said. “I regret not having listened. But it’s not just a feminist issue, it’s a humanitarian issue. I would hope that men would care too.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 31, 2020