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The Chambers Case: Publicity Gimmick or True Justice?

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How do you get sentenced to less prison time for committing a brutal murder than for a run-of-the-mill nonviolent drug offense? Just ask Robert Chambers, the infamous "preppy killer." He's agreed to a plea deal that will land him in prison for the next 19 years. That's four more years than the 15 he served for the brutal 1986 Central Park murder of Jennifer Levin.

So outraged was Jennifer's father, Steven Levin, that he publicly denounced the plea deal saying, "he gets 19 years for dealing coke to drug addicts and 15 for strangling my daughter -- that's pretty unjust." And many New Yorkers would agree. Chambers is no stranger to plea bargaining with New York's District Attorney's office. For the 1986 murder, he took a plea deal in 1988 that sentenced him 5-to-15 years. He wound up serving the full 15 years, largely due to bad institutional behavior that included smuggling and using drugs while in prison.

Chambers is a drug addict. His habit dates back many years to before he entered prison. But instead of his dependence on illegal drugs ending once he entered the prison system, his drug habit actually expanded. You might wonder how someone could possibly catch or maintain a drug habit while serving time in the maximum security prisons where Chambers was housed. I can tell you first-hand since I served 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction in New York State at about the same time Chambers was incarcerated. Drugs were (and still are) readily available in prison. If you don't have a drug habit going in you surely could leave with one.

Chambers is a product of an inept NYS correctional system. It's no mistake or anomaly. If incarceration were truly rehabilitative in nature then it would have some therapeutic value to those who cycle through the system. Instead, much the same way drug prohibition fails to keep drugs off our city streets, it fails to keep drugs out of the jails and prison cells. Seemingly by design, drug abusers are taken into the New York prison system where they continue to use drugs but fail to receive any kind of quality substance abuse treatment.

Upon his release Chambers continued the behaviors he knew best. He got high. He got back together with his girlfriend, Shawn Kovel, and both spiraled down the path of drug addiction. When Chambers and his girlfriend were arrested for selling cocaine to undercover police officers he faced top felony counts that could have landed him in prison for life. The New York District Attorney Bob Morgenthau vowed that Chambers would spend the rest of his life prison.

Soon after, his girlfriend, Shawn, was allowed to enter rehab on the condition that, if she completed the program, she would not be going to jail at all. The question I ask is why did the New York DA's office decline to offer Chambers the same consideration? They both seemed culpable of the same crime. They both were drug addicts caught selling drugs to other drug addicts.

In an op-ed published by the New York Post, Randy Credico wrote a stinging opinion piece suggesting that the reason Chambers is being treated as a kingpin is that the entire case is a cheap publicity gimmick by the New York City DA's office. Chambers was a small-time dealer who sold drugs to feed his addiction. When the police found out about him through an informant, they sent in an undercover cop to make several small buys from Chambers. After several attempts, they finally convinced Chambers to get them a few ounces of cocaine -- just enough to trigger a felony charge. Since Chambers appeared to be a severe addict, his connection would not trust him with the drugs. The supplier agreed to deliver the goods but on the condition he wait in another room during the transaction with the undercover cops. The transaction was completed and the supplier got away; he was never arrested. Credico asks a good question: Where is he now?

The supervising prosecutor, Dan Rather Jr., was involved in another high-profile drug case a few years back: the case of Julia "pot princess" Diaco -- the NYU drug distributor whose widespread operation was way up the ladder from the lowly dime-bag dealing that supported Chambers's habit. But Diaco came from a wealthy family -- unlike the destitute Chambers. She was sent to rehab, with the charges dropped.

In an exclusive interview with Randy Credico he says that the District Attorney's office left nothing to chance. It had a top prosecution team put in place and they waited for the right moment to get the right judge in the Chambers case. The case was mysteriously sent over to Judge Edward McLaughlin who, according to Credico, is super pro-prosecution. He spent years as an assistant district attorney to Morgenthau. Once they got the case to McLaughlin's court room the District Attorney had moved the ball into the end zone.

Chambers joins the thousands of other poor, low-level addicts -- mostly black and Latino - serving impossibly long prison terms for minor drug infractions. Credico raises a good point. "Let's be honest," Credico wrote. "Robert Chambers isn't going to prison for his drug offenses. Rather, he's going to prison for the death of Jennifer Levin -- again."


Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance.