Robert Chambers was raised by his mother, Phyllis (née Shanley), a nurse who emigrated from County Leitrim, Ireland, to New York City. He served as an altar boy and attended a series of prep schools on scholarship, since his mother could not afford to pay private school tuition. Chambers did not prosper in an environment in which many of his classmates were considerably better off than he, and had problems with poor grades and antisocial behavior, including stealing and drug abuse. Among the schools he attended were Saint David's School, Choate-Rosemary Hall, The Browning School and ultimately York Preparatory School.
Chambers was accepted by Boston University, where he completed one semester but was asked to leave because of difficulties, one involving a stolen credit card. He subsequently committed other petty thefts and burglaries in connection with his drug and alcohol abuse.
Unable to hold a job, he was issued a summons for disorderly conduct one night after leaving Dorrian's Red Hand, a bar located at 300 East 84th Street in Manhattan. Chambers destroyed the summons as the police were leaving the scene, yelling, "You fucking cowards, you should stick to niggers!"
He later entered and was discharged from the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota, an addiction treatment center.
Levin's strangled, half-naked corpse, covered in cuts, bruises and bite marks, was found by a cyclist in Central Park near Fifth Avenue and 83rd Street, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clothing from her upper body had been pushed up around her neck, and her skirt was around her waist. The medical examiner's office said Levin had been strangled to death. Police noted there were numerous cuts and bruises on her neck, both from the strangulation and from her own fingernails as she clawed at her killer's hands. Later, Chambers hid and watched as police officers investigated the scene. The investigators had found Levin's underwear some 50 yards (46 m) away.
Police were given Chambers' name by patrons at Dorrian's Red Hand bar, who had seen him leaving with Levin. When authorities arrived to question him at his home, he had fresh scratches on his face and arms, which he initially said were "cat scratches". He was taken in for questioning.
Chambers changed his story several times: "his cat had been declawed"; he "didn't part from Levin immediately upon leaving the bar"; "she had parted from him to purchase cigarettes" (it was later discovered that Levin did not smoke). In the final version of his confession, he claimed that some time after he and Levin had left the bar, she had asked him for "rough sex", tied the 6'5" Chambers' hands with her panties, and hurt his genitals as she stimulated him, and that she had been killed accidentally when he freed his hands and pushed her off him.
Confronted with this explanation, Assistant District Attorney Steve Saracco said: "I've been in this business for a while, and you're the first man I've seen raped in Central Park". The rape scenario was considered to be highly unlikely in light of the fact that Chambers was more than a foot taller than the 5'4" Levin, and at 220 lb (100 kg), he was almost double her weight.
Before booking, Chambers was permitted to see his father, to whom he said, "That fucking bitch, why didn't she leave me alone?"
The media had labeled the crime "The Preppie Murder". Some of the New York media sources had reported the more lurid aspects of the case; for example, New York Daily News headlines read: "How Jennifer Courted Death" and "Sex Play Got Rough". Levin's reputation was attacked, while Chambers was portrayed as a Kennedy-esque "preppie altar boy" with a "promising future".
Archbishop Theodore Edgar McCarrick of Newark, New Jersey, later Archbishop of Washington, wrote a letter of support for Chambers' bail application. He had known Chambers and his mother because Phyllis Chambers had been employed as a nurse by Cardinal Terence Cooke. McCarrick was close to the Chambers family and had served as Robert's godfather at his baptism.
Chambers had secured bail through his family and the owner of the bar, Jack Dorrian, who put up his townhouse as collateral for a bail bond. He then remained free on bond for the two years of his trial, reporting regularly to family friend Monsignor Thomas Leonard, a former teacher.
Chambers was charged with, and tried for, two counts of second-degree murder. His defense was that Levin's death had occurred during "rough sex". He was defended by Jack T. Litman, who had previously used the temporary insanity defense on behalf of Richard Herrin for the murder of Yale University student Bonnie Garland. Prosecutor Linda Fairstein stated: "In more than 8,000 cases of reported assaults in the last 10 years, this is the first in which a male reported being sexually assaulted by a female." The case popularized the strategy later colloquially termed the "rough sex defense". The defense sought to depict Levin as a promiscuous woman who kept a "sex diary"; however, no such diary existed. Levin, instead, kept a small notebook that contained the names and phone numbers of her friends and notations of ordinary appointments. Such tactics were met with public outrage, with protesters (some calling themselves "Justice for Jennifer") demonstrating outside the courtroom.
With the jury deadlocked for nine days, a plea bargain was struck in which Chambers pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of manslaughter in the first degree, and to one count of burglary for his thefts in 1986. He was sentenced to serve 5 to 15 years, with the sentence for Burglary being served concurrently.
In April 1988, the tabloid television program A Current Affair broadcast a home video showing Chambers at a party when he was free on bail. He was shown in the video playing with four lingerie-clad girls, choking himself with his hands while making loud gagging noises, and twisting a Barbie doll's head off, saying in falsetto: "My name is…Oops! I think I killed it."
Chambers served most of his 15-year sentence at Auburn State Prison, but was later moved to Clinton Correctional Facility due to several infractions, which cost him all his time off for good behavior. He assaulted a correctional officer and was cited repeatedly for weapons and drug infractions, some of which resulted in additional criminal charges. Ellen Levin, Jennifer Levin's mother, also pleaded before the New York State parole board to deny him parole. Nearly five years of his term were served in solitary confinement.
In 1997, Chambers sent an untitled essay he wrote to prison anthologist Jeff Evans. The piece, subsequently titled "Christmas: Present", appeared in the book, Undoing Time: American Prisoners in Their Own Words. Written while Chambers was incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, the essay is an entry from one of his journals, which he calls "a record of the meaningless hope and frightening losses of a person I don’t even know."
Chambers was released from Auburn Prison on February 14, 2003, after having served the entirety of his prison term due to his numerous infractions. His release was a media circus, with news media staking out prime sections of sidewalk opposite the prison as early as 13 hours before his 7:30 a.m. release time. The same day, Dateline interviewed Chambers. Chambers continued to claim that he strangled Levin accidentally in an attempt to stop her from hurting him during rough sex. He also denied that he had been disciplined in prison. However, he had numerous infractions, including assaulting a member of the staff, and was caught with heroin in his cell.
The owner of Dorrian's Red Hand settled with Levin's parents on their claim that the bar had served too much alcohol to Chambers. A wrongful death lawsuit, which Chambers did not contest, provides that he must pay all lump sums he receives, including any income from book or movie deals, plus 10 percent of his future income (up to $25 million), to the Levin family. The family has said all the money it gets from Chambers will go to victims' rights organizations. Ellen Levin became an activist for victims' rights, helping to secure the passage of thirteen pieces of legislation.
After leaving prison, Chambers settled in Dalton, Georgia, with his girlfriend, Shawn Kovell, who had appeared in the Barbie doll video made before his sentencing. The two lived there for eight to nine months. He found a job at the Pentafab dye factory. Chambers and Kovell moved to an East 57th Street Sutton Place, Manhattan apartment in New York City, when the death of Kovell's mother in the autumn of 2003 left it vacant. Chambers found a job at a limousine company in Queens, and later in a New Jersey sports trophy manufacturer's engraving plant.
Shortly before Thanksgiving 2004, Chambers was stopped in his Saab for driving with a suspended driver's license in Manhattan on Harlem River Drive at 139th Street. A search of the car he was driving found glassine envelopes containing an unknown substance. Chambers was charged on November 29, 2004, with possession of heroin and cocaine, driving with a suspended license, and driving a car without a valid inspection sticker.
Chambers pleaded guilty in July 2005, and on August 29 he was sentenced to a reduced sentence of 90 days in jail and fined $200 for the license violation. The judge added 10 days to the time prosecutors and Chambers' lawyer had agreed on because Chambers was an hour late for the hearing. He had faced up to a year in jail if he had been convicted after trial.
On October 22, 2007, Chambers was arrested again, this time in his own apartment, and charged with three counts of selling a controlled substance in the first degree, three counts of selling a controlled substance in the second degree, and one count of resisting arrest. Kovell was also arrested on one count of selling a controlled substance in the second degree. The New York Daily News reported:
Cops said Chambers, 41, struggled with officers who tried to handcuff him on the felony charges. One detective suffered a broken thumb in the fracas.
Commenting on his new arrest, former Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, who had prosecuted Chambers for Levin's death, said:
Doesn't surprise me. I always believed his problem with drugs and alcohol would get him in trouble again. He's had the opportunity in prison to detox and take college courses, to straighten out his life, but that clearly is of no interest to him. He's learned nothing in the last 20 years.
Chambers and Kovell were charged with running a cocaine operation out of the apartment. The two had previously been given notices for not paying the rent on the apartment, and the phone had been disconnected. Chambers appeared in court on December 18; according to the New York Post, his lawyer filed "new papers elaborating on his psychiatric defense". The filing claimed that Chambers had become an addict at the age of 14 and was, by 2007, using 10 to 12 bags of heroin a day. It was also reported that he also used cocaine, was smoking marijuana and taking prescription drugs. Chambers planned to plead insanity. Prosecutors countered that Chambers was a drug dealer and had sold as much as $2,800 in heroin at a time to undercover police. Chambers faced life in prison on the drug charges.
On August 11, 2008, the Manhattan DA's office announced that Chambers had pleaded guilty to selling drugs. On September 2, 2008, he was sentenced to 19 years on the drug charge. As of 2015 he is at Wende Correctional Facility. His earliest release date from prison is January 25, 2024.The song "Eliminator Jr." from Sonic Youth's album Daydream Nation (1988) is about the Chambers case.The song "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" in The Killers's album Hot Fuss (2004) was inspired by Chambers' defense of the Jennifer Levin murder charges, in which Chambers claimed he had no motive for the murder, and that he and the victim were "friends".In 1989, the Chambers case was the basis of a TV movie titled The Preppie Murder, starring William Baldwin as Chambers and Lara Flynn Boyle as Levin.In 1990, the television series Law & Order based the episode "Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die" on the case.Mike Doyle has stated that his character, Adam Guenzel on Oz, (1997–2003) was based on Chambers.The 2003 Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Monster" was based on both the Chambers case and the Central Park Jogger case.The case is briefly mentioned in Kerry Cohen's memoir Loose Girl (2008).In the novel American Psycho, Patrick Bateman mentions trying to start a defense fund for Chambers.On August 20, 2016, the CBS News program 48 Hours updated its prior investigative reports with detail of Robert Chambers' life after his initial release from prison in 2003.