Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A Killing in Central Park: The Preppy Murder Case

Battle Lines are Drawn

Jack T. Litman
Jack T. Litman
Jack T. Litman, 43, was hired to defend Robert Chambers. Litman was no stranger to New York's courts or controversy. He was already one of the city's most well-known defense attorneys and in years past participated in several high-profile trials. As a young graduate from Harvard Law School, his first legal job was as a prosecutor with the Manhattan D.A.'s Office where he developed a fine reputation, losing only one trial. But his heart was not in prosecutions. After several years, he left the D.A.'s office and went out on his own. He took several dramatic cases to trial involving police shootings, winning them all. Litman also defended several accused murderers who were convicted on lesser charges.

But Litman's most famous trial to date was the Bonnie Garland murder, a case that became known for its "blame the victim defense." Garland was a 20-year-old Yale University student in 1977 who was sleeping in her own bed at home in Scarsdale, New York. A man, later identified as fellow student Richard Herrin, broke into her room and bludgeoned her to death with a hammer. Herrin was a former boyfriend who was spurned by Garland. When the case came to trial, Litman offered the defense that Herrin was acting under a sort of diminished capacity because he was mistreated by Garland. Eventually, Herrin was convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter. But Litman suffered through a great deal of criticism from an angry press and a fed-up public who saw his tactics as a further degradation of the victim. The Bonnie Garland murder was well remembered in 1986 and soon, protesters marched in the streets carrying signs that denounced Litman for his role in the Chambers case.

Linda Fairstein (Ted Thai/TIMEPIX)
Linda Fairstein
(Ted Thai/TIMEPIX)
Linda Fairstein, 39, a veteran A.D.A. out of the Manhattan office, was named as the prosecutor. Fairstein was a graduate of prestigious Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the University of Virginia Law School in 1972. She spent most of her career in Manhattan prosecuting rape cases and, as a result, developed a genuine empathy for sexual assault victims. During the 14 years she was part of the D.A.'s office, the rape conviction rate rose from 10% in 1973 to almost 75% in 1985. Although she was widely respected in the courts, the Chambers case would be her first murder trial. But Fairstein was determined not to have Jennifer's name or memory dragged through the mud. In reply to Litman's motions, Fairstein said in court papers: "In more than 8,000 cases of reported assaults in the last ten years, this is the first in which a male reported being sexually assaulted by a female." Ironically, her very first job when she arrived at the Manhattan District Attorney's office was to assist a young prosecutor named Jack T. Litman. They remained in touch throughout the years. Of Litman, she once said, "He's a brilliant lawyer. Our passions are very different, and I'm glad I don't do what he does, but I certainly respect his right to do it."

On September 29, Litman asked the court for bail. In support of the request, he supplied the names of dozens of character witnesses including a letter of support from Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, New Jersey. McCarrick knew Phyllis Chambers and Robert from the time she worked as a nurse for Cardinal Cooke of New York. He wrote that Robert was an outstanding young man who surely would not hurt anyone. Although most murder defendants were denied bail, Judge Howard E. Bell was persuaded. He set bail at $150,000 and added one condition. If released, Chambers would have to report regularly to a Monsignor Leonard in a church in Washington Heights. Fairstein was outraged. In the Bonnie Garland case, the defendant was also released on bail and also placed under the supervision of the Catholic Church.

When Judge Bell announced his decision to grant bail, he told the court he was "deeply concerned about the families on both sides in this case. The court finds that bail in this case is appropriate." Ellen Levin burst into tears when she heard the ruling and ran from the courtroom. The Chambers family tried to raise the cash but could not get all the money together. Jack Dorrian, owner of Dorrian's Red Hand, posted the remaining bail. Concerning the propriety of providing bail money, Dorrian said, "At least his mother has the comfort of having him out of jail for now. I'm sure the mother of the victim would understand that." But, of course, she didn't. The vision of her child being viciously strangled in the darkness of Central Park obscured her ability to see things as clearly as others.

 

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