Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A Killing in Central Park: The Preppy Murder Case

The Trial

After months of pre-trial maneuvering and motions filed by the defense, New York's most anticipated trial opened on January 4, 1988. On the bench sat Judge Howard E. Bell, whose rulings infuriated both sides during the many legal questions prior to trial. The press reported every development in court and hardly a day went by that a newspaper editorial didn't condemn Litman for his "blame the victim" defense.

The prosecution began by putting the police officers and forensic investigators on the stand for the first few days. They detailed the crime scene, the location and condition of the body. But the handling and processing of the evidence at the crime scene was not perfect. At times, it was less than acceptable and Litman was able to cast doubt on much of the critical evidence offered by Fairstein concerning the crime scene.

A parade of young people who were friends of the victim, or who were at Dorrian's on the fateful night, took the stand to testify.

Medical Examiner Dr. Maria Alandy testified to the post mortem examination and stated that compression of the victim's neck had to be substantial in order to effect death. It was crucial testimony; for Chambers' explanation was that he grabbed Jennifer by the neck for a moment and threw her off of him. For her final witness, Fairstein put on a Dr. Werner Spitz, the chief medical examiner for the city of Detroit who would give his opinion as to the nature of Levin's injuries. But it was Litman who originally contacted Spitz to testify for the defense. The doctor had taken an immediate dislike for Litman and was not shy about it on the stand when Litman questioned him.

Q: We had a conversation two days in a row, don't you recall them?

A: No. I have no recollection of speaking to you more than once. I don't think I'll forget that phone call for a long time.

Q: In that call, did I convey to you ideas, suppositions, I had about this case?

A: It was a shouting match, and you paid no attention to what I said. You tried to influence my opinions.

Q: Do you remember my telling you things that Chambers had said?

A: Maybe, I don't recall. I felt bulldozed, and I completely turned you off...I was on the phone, but I wasn't listening to what you were saying.

This contentious line of questioning continued for some time as Litman tried to elicit favorable testimony from the defiant Dr. Spitz. Essential was the estimate of time it took to strangle Jennifer and the two men argued, debated and screamed over that point for virtually the entire time Dr. Spitz was on the stand. And once, when Litman tried to get Spitz to agree to a point he was trying to make, the doctor became enraged.

Q: I'm challenging you, Doctor, to tell us how the blouse was tightened into a rope around her neck! Can you or can't you tell us which part was against the side of her neck?

A: I can't tell you.

Q: The fact is that you can't do it, can you?

A: If you want, I'll demonstrate to you right now, on yourself!"

On March 2, Jack Litman opened his defense. He had only five witnesses to testify for Chambers including Dr. Ronald Kornblum, chief medical examiner for Los Angeles, who refuted Dr. Spitz's observations as best he could. By March 10, the defense rested and the case later went to the jury.

For nine nail-biting days, the jury debated the issue of guilt or innocence. Reports indicated that the atmosphere in the deliberations room was tumultuous and undecided. At one point the vote was 8-4 for acquittal. A later poll was 9-3 for conviction on second-degree murder. One black juror complained that other members of the panel were racists. Several times, jurors asked to be excused because of the mounting pressures. In an interview with the N.Y. Times, Debra Cavanaugh, the jury forewoman, said, "Both sides proved their points. Both sides' stories could be true." Another juror said: "Our feelings went back and forth so much, I can't say what it was."

 

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