One of the vilest murders ever committed in New York City was revisited this week on CBS 48 hours. The case of the death of Jennifer Levin was examined on its 30th anniversary questioning once again her death and how could her killer Robert Chambers get more time (nineteen years) for his drug conviction when he returned to society than the 5 to 15 sentence he originally received when he brutally murdered her. I wrote about this in my new memoir "This Side of Freedom: Life after Clemency":
In 2007 Governor Eliot Spitzer created the NYS Commission of Sentencing Reform to make a comprehensive review of New York's sentencing structure, practices, and the use of alternatives to incarceration. The 11 member Commission was chaired by Denise E.O'Donnell, Assistant Secretary to the Governor for Criminal Justice and the Commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services. A series of meetings were to be conducted where the sentencing experts were to provide an in-dept review of New York's sentencing structure and practices.
One of the issues they were to study was the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The panel was to hear from testimony from a wide range of speakers including politicians, activists and treatment providers. Meetings were to be held at three locations which were in NYC, Albany and Buffalo. Gabriel Sayegh our State director for the Drug Policy Alliance who was running the New York project for reform asked me if I would testify at the hearing. I thought about it but had mixed feelings going in front of a panel of legislatures and other officials and telling my story. I remember doing this when I first came out of prison going up to Albany to meet politicians face to face and begging them to help change the laws.
I remember as clear as a bell going to a meeting with assembly members who listened to a group of us. One by one we gave passionate reasons why the laws should be changed. The when I was telling my story Joe Lentol a Democratic Assemblyman out of Brooklyn stopped and interrupted me. "I hear you" he said But if I try to change the laws I would look soft on crime and my constituents would not vote for me and I would lose my job. I realized at that point I was wasting my time and decided to try and do something different that would make a difference. It was then I realized that I would need to change public opinion in order for any politician to go out on the limb. I then co-founded the NY Mothers of the Disappeared and we went on to generate a tremendous amount of publicity through human interest stories.
I knew I needed to generate some press our way for those hearings in order to influence those sitting on the Commission. So I began to search for a hook to use in my messaging and to my surprise I looked no further than the front page of the NY Post when I saw the strangest pick for me to use. A photo of the infamous Robert Chambers adorned its cover. Chambers had served 15 years in prison for the notorious murder of Jennifer Levin in 1986. He had met the 18 year old girl at a local pub and later that night in nearby central park Levin was found dead. Robert claimed that he accidentally strangled Levin during rough sex. While out on bail a video of Chambers appeared on the internet that showed him strangling a toy doll. This angered New Yorkers and Chambers became hated by the general public. Despite his horrific crime, Chambers was allowed to plead guilty to first degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years.
Now, 21 years later, Chambers had been arrested for selling cocaine to undercover officers and was facing life in prison under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I could not fathom such a though, more time for drugs than the brutal murder he committed. When I started traveling around the office and telling people of my thoughts the feedback I got was not great. I often raised eyebrows when I wrote a story because I usually took a path no one else dared to, or wanted to for that matter. As the case unfolded, was apparent that Chambers, along with his girlfriend Shawn Kovell, who was also arrested, were both heavily addicted to drugs. They were described as "crack heads" by detectives who searched their disheveled upper-eastside apartment. Despite significant evidence against him, Chambers has pleaded not guilty to drug charges that could have landed him sentences of 15 to 30 years on each count.
I had no sympathy for him as I recalled the gruesome details of his 1986 case. It ended the life of an 18-year-old girl and caused tremendous grief for her family. But Chambers also has a history of drug addiction. While in prison, he served additional time for smuggling and selling drugs. A year after his release in 2003, he was again arrested while driving with a suspended license and officers found drug residue in his car. He pled guilty and served 100 days on a misdemeanor charge.
I wanted to make it clear that I was not advocating for Chambers despite the fact that he had a severe drug addiction. But I wanted to point out the that the most outrageous fact of this case was that Chambers faced more time now for a drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws than he did for taking Levin's life. There was something very wrong with this equation. I thought about the thousands of nonviolent Rockefeller offenders serving longer sentences than people who commit rape or murder. Many of them first-time, nonviolent offenders who had made mistakes in their lives that were sitting in prison despite two minor reforms made by the legislature in 2004 and 2005...
Read more about Robert Chambers in my new memoir "This Side of Freedom"