For someone serving a prison sentence for murder, Corey Devon Arthur is remarkably polite. When he calls, he always asks about my wife, and he always does it with an unhurried solicitude that makes the question more than perfunctory. When I visit him at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, he strides eagerly toward me as if we were old friends about to share a pitcher of beer and curse at the Yankees as they blow a late-inning lead. In conversation, he makes frequent use of my first name, which has a weirdly endearing, almost paternal effect, though we are nearly the same age.
Arthur looks nothing like the dazed 19-year-old being led out of a Brooklyn precinct house in the spring of 1997, trailed by burly detectives in bad suits, his hands in cuffs, his face fixed in an expression of poignant and pointless defiance. “Gotcha,” said the front page of the New York Post. In another photograph, he looks like urban terror made flesh.
You know Corey Arthur. When the tabloids talk about thugs, they mean Corey Arthur. When the more serious publications talk about the effects of socioeconomic inequality on young people of color, they also mean Corey Arthur. You fear him, whether you will admit to that fear or not. Corey Arthur is a scary motherfucking guy, OK? Or was. He is in prison now. You have nothing to fear.
“The buck stops here,” Arthur tells me about culpability for the crime he committed. The governor of New York wanted the death penalty for Arthur, but that punishment is a rarity in New York state unless the victim is a police officer. His victim was only an English teacher, his English teacher, so he got 25 years to life. He isn’t angry or given to self-pity. Arthur is where he belongs, and he knows that. Whatever wrongs have been done to him are insignificant compared with the wrong he has done, and we both know that.
But there are things I do not know, and those are the things that draw me to Arthur, that compel me to pick up the phone as I change my infant son’s diaper or pack my preschooler daughter’s lunch. For one, while Corey Arthur says he is responsible for the death of 31-year-old Jonathan M. Levin, he maintains that he is not culpable of murder. This may seem like the kind of justification one invents while languishing in prison, but Arthur insists on the fine distinction every time I ask him about what happened in the waning hours of May 30, 1997. Other men, he says, killed Levin. Those other men, whose names he will not tell me, would not have been there unless Arthur had introduced them to his beloved English teacher. But they are the real killers, he claims.
“I had no intentions of robbing this man,” Arthur says to me. “I had no intentions of killing this man.”
‘Sloppy Police Work’
I have talked to at least one other person who was in that third-floor apartment on Columbus Avenue and 69th Street on a spring night nearly 20 years ago: Montoun Hart, who was arrested as Arthur’s accomplice in the killing but signed a lengthy confession that implicated Arthur. Hart was subsequently acquitted on all charges and returned to an apparently aimless life. What little of his story Hart deigned to tell me was, frankly, so outlandish that it inadvertently lent credence to Arthur’s version of events. Hart may have nothing to do with Levin's death, but after my single encounter with him, I have no doubt that as far as that duo was concerned, the more trustworthy man was languishing in prison.
Let me be very clear: Do I think Arthur is dumb enough to call up his favorite teacher, leave a message on his answering machine, go to his Upper West Side apartment with some random hood he barely knows (i.e., Hart), torture and kill Levin, use Levin’s bank card to withdraw a paltry sum ($800) from an ATM on a busy stretch of Columbus Avenue and then simply go to ground in Brooklyn, where he had to know the cops would find him before the weekend was through?
I do not.
At the same time, is it possible that Arthur did, in fact, murder Jonathan Levin?
The evidence suggests that this is not only possible but probable. As far as the state of New York is concerned, Arthur was given just punishment for a crime he was proved beyond a reasonable doubt to have committed. The criminal justice system, having done its work, moved on long ago.
I haven’t. I have no ties to the people in this case other than a long-standing curiosity about why things turned out the way did. I am not writing as a crusader or an advocate, though a good journalist is often both. Part of my motivation in revisiting this case is the conviction that what remains unknown in it should not remain unknown. Here's just one example: I tried for many months to force the New York Police Department to hand over its file on the Levin murder. I called and wrote letters and had our company lawyer write letters, and in the end I got back nothing. For a case that had been closed for nearly two decades, such reluctance seemed strange. Or maybe not so strange, since accusations of “sloppy police work” were leveled during Arthur’s trial. Is it possible that zealous detective work settled on Arthur too quickly, eager to close a case that terrified Manhattan?
Is it possible that a young black man from the depths of Brooklyn was not treated by the criminal justice system with all the solicitude he deserved?
This is also not only possible but probable.
The most important question is whether Arthur should go free. I make no pretenses to journalistic impartiality on this point: I have helped him contact appeal lawyers and have suggested steps he should take before his parole hearing, which is still years away. But I also know that Levin’s parents are both living (both refused to talk to me on the record), and it would surely crush them yet again to have some journalist zonked out on Serial and Making a Murderer go for glory by trying to free the killer of their son.
Here’s the thing, though, and I am going to lay it out very simply: Whether by the hand of Arthur or someone else, the only person who gave a shit about Arthur was killed. For this, Arthur deserved the years he has spent behind bars. Nobody disputes that. Yet he is now finally deserving of shit-giving (i.e., empathy). It took him a while to get there, but I believe he is ready to receive compassion without exploiting those who offer it.
For now, Arthur remains something less than a person. He is 98A7146, which is the identification number given to him by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. After some months of visits and correspondence, I start to think of him as 98A7146, no longer needing to look up the number when visiting him or writing him a letter.
But Arthur is more than 98A7146, more than a murderer, more than the nexus of late 20th-century urban ills. He writes poetry. It isn’t very good, but neither is most poetry written by people outside of prison. Here is one of his better verses:
My life is a rose
that forgot to blossom
This verse comes from a poem titled "Fucked Up."
He also draws, and his drawings remind me of the great Mexican muralists: sinuous and lush, dreamy but precise. I have been sending him information on how to publish a graphic novel. We both believe his life is rife with material for such an enterprise. He wouldn’t even have to make much up: rapping with the Notorious B.I.G. when they were both just hungry scrappers from Brooklyn, getting whaled on by the cops of the famously corrupt 75th Precinct. A graphic memoir, maybe? Those things sell.
Arthur has been in one cell or another since June 7, 1997, when around 1:30 p.m., members of the New York Police Department descended on him in the Sumner Houses housing development in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He was planning to escape to North Carolina. Now he was headed to Rikers Island, then upstate for prison, where he has been ever since. He will turn 39 in December, meaning he has spent half of his life in prison. The cell is his true natural habitat. He has never even used an iPhone.
Arthur spent a good deal of his 20s in Attica, the maximum security prison where bank robber Willie Sutton spent 17 years and where John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman, spent 31. “I love Attica,” he tells me. “I became a man in Attica…. The most basic parts of manhood I learned in Attica.” There are very few people who will express fondness for a maximum security prison, but on a deeply uncomfortable level, 98A7146 is an example of the corrections system at its very best, for he has done significantly better when deprived of freedom by the state. He is much more informed, articulate and compassionate than the stoops and street corners of Bed-Stuy would have ever allowed him to be. I don't like having that thought, but few of my liberal verities are confirmed as I sit in the Green Haven visiting room, whose walls are lined with baby play cribs, watching Arthur eat a microwaved pizza slice and tell me how he’d love it if I could send him books about leadership. He likes to read history too.
Arthur knows that he will never escape the events of May 30, 1997. But since the state did not have him executed, he reasons, he has a responsibility to live, to be better and to maybe even be good. “The story ain’t over,” he says. “I’m still in the fight.” I admire that, even if there is much about Arthur that I do not admire. This is a fight I want to join.
Interactive documentary: Choose your own path through "Undertow," a look at the relationship between Corey Arthur and his former English teacher. EXPLORE THE STORY
‘He Only Talked About Getting Money’
It was one of those Fridays in late May when every New Yorker yearns to escape from Manhattan to the Jersey Shore, the Hamptons or the country, coolers packed, highways jammed, prayers whispered against the rain. Jonathan Levin, though, wasn’t going anywhere. He had just finished another week of teaching English at William H. Taft High School in the Bronx; the next morning, as his fellow Upper West Siders sleepily slunk out for brunch, he would be back at the school for a meeting of teachers trying to figure out how to deal with students on the brink of dropping out. And many had dropped out—the school’s graduation rate was only 63 percent.
That night, the New York Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox. I don’t know what social plans he had, but it seems inconceivable that a lifelong Yankees fan such as Levin could have made any arrangements that didn’t involve baseball’s greatest rivalry. The Red Sox won the game, 10-4. Levin was probably dead well before the seventh-inning stretch.
A little after 5 p.m., there was a message on his answering machine. The caller announced himself as “Corey” while addressing “Mr. Levin.” “Pick up if you’re there,” he said. “It’s important.”
Corey Arthur had been one of Levin’s favorite students at Taft. Not the one with the best grades, not even one who showed up with anything like frequency. Yet there was some ineffable quality that convinced Levin that Arthur could be pulled from the sinkhole that awaited many of his classmates. “So much of what I am and what I want to do in this life, and this profession, revolves around what I’ve established” with Arthur, he had written in the fall of 1993 in a paper for his graduate program at New York University. In that same essay, he quoted from a thank-you note Arthur had written: “The most important thing you have taught me is how to live…. Wherever I get in life, I owe it to you and for that I am eternally grateful. I am also lucky and most happy to call Jake or Jon Levin my friend.”
During the 1993-94 school year, Arthur and Levin had become friends, enamored of each other’s respective cultures. Levin loved rap, while Arthur was a real-life rapper. At some point, he started rapping as either “Dee Rock” or “Big C” (Arthur is unclear about the timeline, while news reports from that period are conflicting and, according to him, frequently wrong). He was also loosely affiliated with the crew that coalesced around the portly Bed-Stuy rapper named Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G. He says he also met Marion “Suge” Knight, the West Coast producer of rappers like Dr. Dre, though that appears to have come later. In any case, music became the bridge between teacher and student, between white Manhattan and black Brooklyn.
"That was the closest I've ever been with a white man,” Arthur tells me.
In the fall of 1994, after a procession of drug-related arrests, Arthur was sent to a military-style prison on the shore of Lake Erie. He spent about seven months there, then returned to New York City. He got a high school equivalency degree, took some courses at Bronx Community College. The hustle beckoned, though, and soon he was selling crack again. “The only thing he talked about was getting money—any way he could get money,” an acquaintance would later tell The New York Times.
Still, when Arthur appeared at the door of the third-floor apartment at 205 Columbus Avenue, Levin apparently welcomed him inside.
Levin did not show up for that Saturday morning meeting at Taft. On Sunday, a fellow teacher named Cleo Tejada left a message: “We’re worried about you. Please call and let us know you’re all right.” There were also messages from another colleague, Karen Grayson. “Call and say something as soon as you come in the door,” she urged. “Call.”
After he failed to come to school on Monday, several teachers from Taft showed up that evening at Levin’s building. For hours, they pleaded with people on the street to tell them something about their colleague. Nobody could tell them a thing. Finally, around 11 p.m., one of the teachers called the cops. Two officers showed up and had a neighbor, Richard Veloso, use a spare key to open the apartment.
Veloso went inside the one-bedroom, with the cops behind him. The television was on. It was tuned to NY1, the 24-hour news channel. On the floor between the narrow kitchen and the living area, Veloso saw a body. He thought it was Julius, Levin’s 9-month-old German shepherd.
But as Veloso came closer, he saw that the shape on the floor was too big to be a dog.
‘Aren’t You Worried?’
I first learned about Levin a decade ago, when I was on the cusp of becoming a public school teacher. Back then, subway cars were plastered with ads for the New York City Teaching Fellows, a rapid certification program for people who were tired of their office jobs and thought that getting 30 kids to read The Outsiders would make life more meaningful. I was accepted into the Teaching Fellows in the summer of 2005; by that fall, I would have my own classroom. So dire were things that putting a 25-year-old barely able to do his own laundry in charge of dozens of children appeared a reasonable means of improving the city’s public schools.
“So you’re going to become a public school teacher?”
I was drinking coffee outside a fashionable bookstore in SoHo with an appropriately fashionable friend who had grown up a few blocks away and now lived in Paris and worked in either law or consulting. He made no effort to disguise his disapproval. To become a teacher was unacceptable and vaguely embarrassing. We had not gone to Dartmouth to baby-sit hopeless cases who wouldn't make it to the 10th grade. Altruism? Yeah, OK, but only as an afterthought.
“Aren’t you worried you might end up like that teacher in the Bronx?” this friend asked with casual cruelty. I professed ignorance, which Google cured some hours later when I typed something like “Bronx teacher student killed” into the search box. The headlines that ran down the page captured the tragic essence of his story: “Bronx Teacher, Time Warner Head’s Son, Is Slain,” “Ex-Student Denies Killing Levin and Tells of Gunmen,” “Letter by Defendant Calls Slain Teacher His Friend,” “Murder Trial Examines Drug Use by Teacher.” There were intimations of an affair with a married woman, as well as questions—many questions—about whether Levin had become too close to one of this students.
One could leave it there, chalk the whole thing up to one of those big-city tragedies that make people thank God for the suburbs. But the story stayed with me, as did the conviction that there was more to Levin than the tale of his demise. What seemed especially admirable to me—as my classmates ascended the ranks of Goldman Sachs, earned their law degrees from Yale, published their first articles in magazines important people were rumored to read—was Levin’s renunciation of the solipsism that marks the American coming-of-age experience. He wasn’t selfish, bowled over by the complexity of the world, falling back into the prevailing “like, whatever” ethos of Generation X. Nor did he court the convenient outrages of that time, which were most frequently solved with T-shirts or bumper stickers: “Free Mumia,” “Save Tibet.” There were plenty of outrages waiting for him in the Bronx, right across the Harlem River, unsexy and forgotten.
Levin wanted to teach students precisely like Arthur; that his street-wise approach worked on Arthur appeared to confirm Levin’s hopes for what a good teacher could accomplish in a place like the Bronx. “I can’t ever be a teacher who doesn’t want to invest personally with my students,” Levin wrote in his NYU essay about Arthur. “If that means giving them some of myself personally...then I have no problem with that.”
“I might, actually, be doing something right,” Levin said at the end of that revealing piece of writing. In my English class, I could have used this as an example of dramatic irony, or what Aeschylus called “the awful grace of God.” Do you think grace can be awful? If not, why? Did you know that Robert F. Kennedy said those words upon learning that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated? Do you know what the weirdest thing is about being a teacher? You have absolutely no way of knowing whether you are making a difference. You can keep on, as Levin did. Or you can go do something else, as I did.
Into the Fray
If you have ever watched HBO, you have Jonathan Levin’s father to thank. The man responsible, however indirectly, for making sure you can enjoy Game of Thrones was not exactly groomed from childhood for media moguldom. Gerald Levin descended from Romanian Jews who had come to the United States in 1907 and opened a grocery store in Philadelphia. He went to Haverford College, then the University of Pennsylvania Law School, from which he graduated in 1963. He worked at a white-shoe law firm in New York and, after that proved a bust, on an agrarian project in Iran.
In 1972, Time Inc. hired Gerald Levin to work on Home Box Office. Three years later, he figured out that transmitting HBO’s signal by satellite, instead of via microwave towers, would give it a reach no other channel had. He thus became known as Time Inc.’s “resident genius,” wrote journalist Nina Munk.
At the time his father reinvented HBO, Levin was 9 years old and living with his mother and two siblings on the north shore of Long Island, in the upper-middle-class town of Manhasset, close to where The Great Gatsby takes place. Levin’s father had divorced his mother, Carol, in 1970, so Levin grew up in a comfortable but not posh household.
“I will be living in California, working as a wine taster for Ernest and Julio Gallo,” Levin predicted in his yearbook as he graduated from Manhasset High School in 1984. He went to Trinity College, majoring in English and psychology. After graduation, he moved to New York City and started working for Access America, a travel insurance company. He did so for the next five years, spending off-hours with high school buddies, enjoying a Manhattan that was still a little wild and must have been an especially welcome playground in the wake of joyless Hartford.
He could have kept doing the young professional thing for years. There is nothing wrong with quietly profitable solidity, but Levin grew restless. “There’s gotta be more to this,” he would later tell Matthew Dwyer, who also taught at Taft and shared subway rides with Levin from the Upper West Side to the Bronx. And so, in the summer of 1993, he enrolled in a master’s program at New York University.
Gordon Pradl, then a professor of education at NYU, remembers Levin bursting into his office, eager to get into the program so that he could start teaching in the fall. “I think that he realized that if he had some of these principles—like helping others—then staying in the business world was not his way of achieving that,” Pradl says. “So he had to directly get into the fray. And that’s teaching—teaching was actually a logical direction given his talents and also the quickest direction. Because he was in a hurry. He was in a hurry.”
‘I Was an Asshole’
Corey Arthur was born in 1977, at the end of a year during which there had been a chaotic blackout in New York City, Son of Sam had gone around killing young women in the outer boroughs, and the whole city seemed to be floating ever further from the American mainland. The Yankees won the World Series, but all else was grim.
Arthur has a good memory, but it stumbles over the details of his life before prison, as if that were an ever-receding dream. He was raised by his mother and great-grandmother. Arthur had a half-brother and half-sister about whom he does not say much, other than that he is proud of them and understands why they don’t make much room for him in their lives. “We lived from check to check,” he says. “There wasn’t no savings.”
He remembers some of his teachers: Ms. Cohen, kindergarten, who had a son named Corey and gave him T-shirts bearing that name; Ms. Eisenberg, third grade, in whose class he made butter. “I always liked school,” Arthur says. “I never had a problem at school.”
Middle school was “when the real problems started.” He went to J.H.S. 302, a building on Linwood Street in East New York, Brooklyn, that could easily pass for a medium security prison. It was a bad school then; it was a bad school until the spring of 2015, when it closed, cleaving into several smaller schools. Arthur recounts infractions like fighting and using the girls’ bathroom. His first encounter with the police came when he was 12. He and some friends skipped school; Arthur says cops from the 75th Precinct easily pegged them as truants, took them to nearby Highland Park and “roughed us up.”
Once he got into real trouble, he kept getting in trouble. “The lines were drawn,” Arthur says. In the summer of 1992, he was arrested for menacing a subway clerk in Brooklyn by trying to set his booth on fire. “It’s not for me to say, but I would say he’s a troubled kid,” that clerk later told the Daily News.
Arthur’s assessment: “I was an asshole.”
That fall, Arthur moved with his mother and her new husband to an apartment near Yankee Stadium—and even nearer to the Bronx Supreme Court. He had been kicked out of Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, so now he went to William H. Taft in the Bronx, just a few blocks up the Grand Concourse, with its enormous apartment buildings recalling Moscow or East Berlin.
Arthur had Levin’s class at the end of the day, eighth period, not usually a time when Arthur was in school. The two first met outside the classroom. “I was coming out of school a tad bit early,” Arthur says, “and I think that he was coming back from a cigarette break. And we just happened to cross paths. And because I was leaving school early, I was scared, and I think he was kind of shocked to be seen smoking a cigarette, because the first thing he did was try and put it out. The first thing I did was look at him and start haulin’ ass.”
The next day, Arthur showed up in English class. He liked, at once, what he saw. Levin would open every class with a discussion of a quote from a rap song. “He had a thing for, like, conscious rap…rap mostly with a message,” Arthur says. He adds that Levin “looked like a dork.” This is said not pejoratively but with a kind of wistful affection.
A little later, Arthur saw Levin outside of class again. OK, let’s see how cool this dude is, he thought. He took out a cigarette and began smoking it in front of his teacher. Nothing happened. He then tested Levin about his knowledge of Timberland boots. It quickly became clear that Levin knew more about Timbs than he did. He was a white guy down with black culture. Arthur, meanwhile, was a black kid with a curiosity about the white world. “He was like an anomaly to me,” Arthur says. “And I was an anomaly to him.”
But no amount of De La Soul or KRS-One was going to keep Arthur coming to school. Though nominally living in the Bronx, he was drawn to the streets of his native Brooklyn, where he ran what he calls “an unlicensed pharmaceutical.” In the first half of 1994, the cops nabbed him for possession of heroin and selling crack, and that fall he was sent to Lakeview, a special brand of military prison that the National Institute of Justice described as employing “strict, military-style discipline, unquestioning obedience to orders, and highly structured days filled with drill and hard work.”
Arthur says he did well during his seven months at Lakeview, but then he was out and back downstate, caught in familiar currents. At some point, he reconnected with Levin, who mentored his former student, though to hear Arthur tell it, they were more like friends. They played pool, drank beers, hit on girls. There was the time they walked from SoHo back up to Levin’s apartment, bumming cigarettes along the way, and the time Arthur cock-blocked Levin with Amy, Levin’s girlfriend. Arthur remembers all this as one might college escapades that involved a friend who couldn’t make the 25th reunion.
Dwyer, Levin’s colleague, recalls Arthur coming over to his house to watch a ballgame. He says Arthur was quiet and shy, the way kids often are around adults. Then again, Arthur was pretty much an adult himself. By the time he and Levin became friends, Arthur was long done with Taft. Dwyer points this out in defense of his slain colleague, who would later stand accused of getting too close to a student. Still, that won’t assuage some who see little difference between student and former student. “It just seems inappropriate on a lot of different levels,” education historian Diane Ravitch says of their friendship. “There’s some lines you don’t cross.”
Killed by Modern Teaching?
“Jon could rap; and he could write,” says Dorothy Striplin, a retired educator who studied at NYU with Levin and got to know him well. “It wasn’t like he was a white boy doing rap,” by which she means his interest in rap wasn’t of the ironic, half-mocking kind. As evidence of Levin’s passion for the genre, Striplin showed me a three-page-long rap Levin wrote while at Oxford in the summer of 1994. Calling himself MC Jake (Jake was his nickname), he rapped:
An MC that can take me ain’t been born yet
You see I’ll make you laugh and I’ll make you smile
Everyone out there wanna get with my style
Now I wanna tell you ’bout the rest of the crew
Recognize what I’m sayin’ ’coz I’m a rhymin’ Jew
Despite many references to hookups attempted and realized, as well as to the notoriously unpalatable cuisine of dear old England, the rap ends on a sentimental note free of the usual bluster:
The group was kind dope ’n’ I’m kinda hopin’
That our hearts and our minds will always stay open
Much was made of Levin’s affinity for rap after his murder, given that the culture war over gangsta rap was not yet quite over. Some saw in his approach a willingness to engage with the culture of the Bronx, but others saw it as pandering.
On June 25, 1997, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by a former teacher named Sylvia Christoff Kurop. It was titled “Killed by Modern Teaching?”
His was the jeans and T-shirt approach to teaching, whereby “The Great Gatsby” was taught with references to rap music at chairs arranged in a circle.
The point of teaching is not to fuse personal relationships, but first and foremost to maintain a professional role. Mr. Levin’s brave and open approach to his students certainly made a prominent, positive impact on his adoring students’ lives. Yet in the end it took just one student—only one—to highlight the extreme risks of this teaching style.
She comes close to saying what others doubtlessly thought: He got what he deserved.
Two weeks later, on July 7, the Journal published several responses to the Kurop op-ed. One of them was signed by the English department of Taft:
Ms. Kurop is under the false impression that, in an effort to relate to his students, Mr. Levin lowered his classroom standards. This is absolutely untrue. One reason why Mr. Levin was such a successful teacher was that he continually held high expectations of his students and accepted nothing less than their best work. This is why they respected him.
Several other letters pointed out that Kurop taught only briefly, back when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. True enough, but she was not the only one to think harshly of Levin. The Daily News called him “perhaps too trusting, too tenderhearted,” and quoted a student: “People took advantage of him. Some kids would curse at him, but he would just laugh it off. Kids would ask to go to the bathroom and never go back to his class.”
It must be said here that every teacher in New York City has had a student ask to go to the bathroom and not return. This is not the failing of a teacher; it is the nature of a teenager.
Dwyer bristles at the suggestion that teachers like Levin were missionaries so zealous in achieving their social goals that they couldn’t be bothered with the finer points of classroom practice. “It was a job,” he says. “We were professionals, right? We weren’t flying in and saving anybody.”
‘Elvis Was a Hero to Most, but He Never Meant Shit to Me’
Teachers occupy a strange place in American society, revered and reviled. It is a profession whose main benefit is widely believed to be summer vacation. I can report that this is indeed a great perk, though it doesn’t quite make up for the many weekends grading five-paragraph essays on the theme of Antigone , of late afternoons, long after the final bell, trying to explain to some kid the ancient mysteries of the semicolon.
Once, while we were all sleepily preparing for first period, a kid from Bensonhurst climbed out on the scaffolding and threatened to jump. A teacher of Latin coaxed him down.
Another time, a former colleague called to say a student had been killed while walking home from a party in Bed-Stuy. Some jealous punk slashed her in the neck, and she bled out on the street. Her name was Kyanna Thomas. She was a good kid. They were all good kids.
Once, I read my students the great epigrams of the Roman poet Martial. Here is one:
Your lover and your spouse agree on this:
That baby that you got cannot be his
Is that any different than having your students parse Public Enemy, as Levin’s may have? Is a classroom full of teenagers expending their fullest intellectual energies on decoding an epigram by Martial in any way different from a classroom full of teenagers expending their fullest intellectual energies on decoding “Fight the Power”?
I am suspicious of anyone who can confidently answer that question.
A Big Red X Over the Whole Thing
On the first floor of what used to be Taft is the Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications. The principal, Jacqueline Boswell, never answered my phone calls or emails (she must have sensed I wasn’t coming to do a puff piece), so I simply went on my own, slipping past security without any questions at all. It is a despairing fact of life in modern America that being a crisply dressed white male will open almost any door.
Jonathan Levin High has the joyful, claustrophobic chaos of any urban high school. The teachers look harried; the secretaries look bored. Some kid told me he liked my tie, and I had the urge to play the teacher again and ask him why he was tarrying in the hallway.
In a display case near the principal’s office, there are several photographs of Levin, with his mother, his friends, always happy. An explanatory note calls him “Jonathan Levin HS,” as if “high school” were a professional appellation like “doctor of philosophy.” The poorly written paragraph, which is single-spaced but becomes double-spaced in the final lines, praises his “passionate devotion and professional commitment.” It doesn’t mention that he was murdered, though that is the sole reason the school bears his name. If I were still an English teacher, I would put a big red X over the whole thing and tell whoever wrote the unfortunate passage that it constituted an atrocity committed upon the English language.
That’s how I spoke to my students. Most of them liked it.
Jonathan Levin High will soon be no more. When the closure was first announced, The New York Times reported on what ailed the misbegotten place:
Money for a college scholarship in Mr. Levin’s name dried up. A ball field that a Mets official helped pay for fell into disrepair. Computers sat untouched, applications to the school fell and the graduation rate sank to 31 percent, the fifth-lowest in the city.
One of the people who rallied against the closing was Levin’s mother, Carol. She had, in the wake of his death, become a teacher in the Bronx, a parent venturing into the battlefield that claimed her son. “If I didn’t try this, I really felt I’d just be taking up space,” she told Good Housekeeping for a 2000 profile. “Me and my pain, taking up space on this earth.” That sounds, to me, like something Aeschylus might have written.
Gerald Levin did not become a teacher, but he did not stay a media mogul either. His company’s 2001 merger with AOL is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in the history of corporate America. In 2002, he met Dr. Laurie Perlman, a psychic who communed with the dead. She told him she spoke with his son. He believed her. He left his second wife and moved to Santa Monica with Perlman, where they opened Moonview Sanctuary, which looks to be one of those places where rich people come to purchase the illusion of serenity.
When there were mass protests over the police killings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York’s Staten Island, the Levins wrote a column for Deadline Hollywood. “We are in a never-ending cycle of chaos and death,” they said. “Even if we must scratch and claw ourselves to get into the light, we must begin fully to comprehend the intransigence of old patterns.”
This too deserves the big red X.
Jonathan Levin, for his part, would have probably taken his students to Staten Island, to stand at the spot where Eric Garner died and chant, “Black lives matter.” And in the classroom, he might have played N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” and the students would have talked about what that song meant, and about Birmingham, the Watts Riots, Ferguson and what those events said about us and about our country, sometimes glorious but frequently tragic.
‘It’s Always the Good People’
In about six years, Arthur will appear before the parole board. He has a decent disciplinary record and has earned certificates in trades like woodworking and metalworking, which could presumably be useful in the real world. He is especially proud of his legal research certificate. He is an AIDS counselor. As a former English teacher, I am happy to certify that his letters, composed with no apparent help, show a good-to-excellent command of grammatical rules.
Arthur has also shown the contrition expected of him by the state. His displays of regret are genuine, though they may also have a practical purpose (i.e., the eventual appearance before the parole board). In 2010, he asked the Manhattan district attorney to allow him to send a letter to Levin’s parents. Levin’s father accepted the offer; his mother refused it. “Sir, I did you and your family a terrible injustice,” the letter says. “Not a day passes that its crushing impact isn’t impressed upon me.”
But neither in that letter nor in any of our conversations does Arthur say the thing I am confident he will have to say if he wants to leave prison: I killed Jonathan Levin. Arthur does not want to talk to me about what happened on May 30, 1997, except to say this: “When I left Jonathan Levin, he was alive.” Despite his circumspection, Arthur does have a narrative that challenges the one offered up by prosecutors. “[Levin] did something he shouldn’t have done with someone he shouldn’t have done it with,” he says. During his trial, Arthur’s lawyers argued that Arthur and Levin were smoking crack when assailants entered the apartment and ordered Arthur to bind him. Arthur now says he never smoked crack, neither that evening nor on any other occasion; the notion of Levin smoking crack is equally ludicrous to him today. As far as I understand it, Arthur maintains that other men murdered Levin, with him acting only as an accomplice. But no such assailants were ever identified, while forensic evidence (blood on Arthur’s clothes, fingerprints at the crime scene) proved convincing enough for the jury. The .22-caliber gun Arthur supposedly used was never found, but this turned out to be a surprisingly irrelevant detail.
I ask him to tell me about the real killers, but he refuses, citing the safety of his family and the code of the streets. “This is not my story alone to tell,” he tells me in one letter. “I have every intention of giving full disclosure to the parole board when I appear before them. But other than that, my hands are tied.”
When Arthur entered Levin’s apartment that evening, with him was Montoun Hart, the small-time criminal from Brooklyn who says he came along without quite knowing what he was getting into. Later, Hart would sign his 11-page confession that portrayed him as an unwitting accomplice in the murder, which he’d had no idea Arthur planned to commit. He was acquitted of all charges partly because he claimed to be high and drunk when signing that confession. If that's the case, then can anything about his description of that night be believed?
Another question for which I don't have an answer.
“It’s always the good people,” Hart says of Levin, talking with me over the phone for the first time after I have told him of my interest in the case. This sounds disingenuous, like some lugubrious thing he has heard in a movie and saved for moments just like this.
Hart still lives in Brooklyn; his Facebook page is rife with allusions to the Crips, though for Hart the C’s are more a club for middle-aged dudes from Bed-Stuy than an active criminal gang. I met him and a friend named Skeet for drinks near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They were about two hours late. Skeet immediately started hitting on a middle-aged blonde, with no success. Hart disavowed all responsibility for what happened on May 30, 1997, spun a wild and increasingly unbelievable story of his life, then asked for money for an on-the-record interview. I paid for the drinks and never talked to him again.
Arthur and I speak by phone about once a week. He calls me when I am on a jog. He calls as I am plodding through The Cat in the Hat for the sixth time. He calls when I am in the hospital with my wife, who has just given birth to our second child. “Corey,” I mouth to her. She understands: They don’t really let you play phone tag from a maximum security prison. And I am going to keep talking to Arthur, not because I have any profound humanitarian impulse but because it would be cruel to take the story but leave the man, like a teacher walking out in the middle of a class.
I am certain about this: It would have been so much easier for Levin if he had just stayed in Manhattan, selling travel insurance. Such a life could be a good one, but it was not the life he sought to live. The Bronx beckoned, a battlefield where the glories are rare and muted, the defeats frequent and resounding. Nothing would be easy in the Bronx, but Levin had tired of easy things. So when the Bronx called, he went.