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East Side Story

The trial itself is likely to hinge on the precise circumstances of her death. The autopsy report has not been made public, except for the conclusion that Levin died of asphyxia by strangulation. Early on, investigators close to the case told reporters that the autopsy had found bruises on Levin's throat and internal injuries—indications, the investigators said, that she had been choked for at least twenty seconds before she died. Investigators also said there were bite marks on her body. The prosecutor handling the case, Linda Fairstein, won't comment.

Within a day of Levin's death, Litman hired Dr. Dominick DiMaio, a former New York City medical examiner, to examine her body. Litman hasn't released Dr. DiMaio's findings, but during Chambers's bail hearing, Litman argued that Levin hadn't been strangled either by hand or by a material, such as an article of clothing. Instead, he argued, she was choked from behind, between Chambers's left bicep and forearm.

Litman maintains that Chambers's maneuver was similar to the rear-restraining choke hold, a method of restraint that is widely used by police. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department banned the routine use of the hold after it was linked to a number of deaths. Death by this method can take as little as two seconds. The lethal effects of the hold are aggravated by the victim's resistance, and Litman will surely point out that Jennifer Levin was the type of person who fought back.

As for the bruises on Levin, Chambers's supporters maintain that they came when he flipped her over during the rough sex play. Those supporters say the supposed marks on Levin's neck are consistent with the choke hold—indeed, they might have been caused in part by his watch. If so, they would coincide with Chambers's claim that he used his left arm to pull Levin off him. Since Chambers is right-handed, Litman will undoubtedly argue that a man who intends to strangle his victim would use his strongest arm. One source close to the case says that, contrary to early newspaper accounts, the autopsy report doesn't mention bite marks on Levin's body.

But if, as Chambers claims, the death was an accident, why didn't he summon immediate help? Chambers's supporters say he was simply in a state of shock and didn't know what to do.

"If [Litman] proves that death was possible in seconds, he may win his case," claims Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who helped build Claus von Bulow's successful defense.

But the prosecution claims the evidence against Chambers is overwhelming, and Levin's friends insist she would never have inflicted the scratches on Chambers without severe provocation. Besides, the use of the choke hold doesn't rule out murder—or something that falls somewhere between murder and accidental death. It's possible that Levin triggered Chambers's anger through her persistence or through inadvertently causing him pain. Their struggle may then have escalated in a series of actions and responses, with Chambers holding ever more tightly to Levin's throat in an effort to control her.

At Dorrian's these days, the initial out-pouring of grief and anger has subsided, except among Levin's closest friends, and there's little speculation about the upcoming trial. The partying goes on, well into the night. "The scene is more like a family than anything I've known," says one young girl. "Almost everyone in it comes from a broken home, or their parents travel or are busy. That's why everyone was devastated by what happened. After they heard Jennifer had been killed, people were violent—they wanted to get the guy who did it. But then when they heard it was Robert, everyone went. 'Whoa.' It kind of neutralized what they felt. They didn't know how to deal with it. Everyone was walking around in a kind of limbo."

A fortnight ago, the students suffered another shock when seventeen-year-old Courtney Steel, the president of the student body at Spence, was struck and killed by a car in the street outside the Zulu Lounge at 3:15 in the morning. Steel, the stepdaughter of architect Charles Gwathmey, was a favorite of the East Side private-school crowd, and she'd been with friends at Dorrian's just an hour and a half before she was killed. Again, there was disbelief and mourning from the students—one of their own, taken so suddenly and senselessly.

In a brief press conference at Litman's office on October 1, Chambers made his only public comment about the death of Jennifer Levin. "I regret that nothing I can say or do can undo the terrible tragedy that has occurred," he said, reading from a statement. Later, he told friends that as he had stood against the museum wall, watching squad cars arrive, he'd felt he was in a dream, a terrible nightmare from which he still sometimes expects to awake. Until that morning, Chambers had led a privileged existence, his misdeeds and failures patched up or taken care of. But as dawn broke around him, a vision of the lifeless girl he'd embraced only minutes before must have tugged at his conscience: Jennifer Levin was real, and so was her death.


Related:

  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Nov 10, 1986 issue of New York
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