Anthony Ricco Tries To Use Jonathan Levin’s View of Death Penalty

The lawyer for the accused killer of Jonathan Levin, the popular high school teacher and son of Time Warner Inc. chief executive Gerald Levin, hopes to save his client’s life by citing evidence of the victim’s opposition to capital punishment.

Anthony Ricco, who is defending murder suspect Corey Arthur, told The Observer that he has questioned several of Levin’s former students and a colleague, and has concluded that Levin himself would oppose calls to execute his killer. In a letter to the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, text excerpts of which were obtained by The Observer, the defense wrote: “[W]e decided to investigate Jonathan Levin’s beliefs about the death penalty and whether, if he could speak to us and the students he so ably served, he would join the chorus for execution. We now have evidence, from students that he taught and a co-worker, that Jonathan Levin would stand firm for life, and argue strenuously against death. Former students confirm that Jonathan Levin, in his class at Taft High School [in the Bronx], voiced strong and sincere opposition to capital punishment. He assigned his students to compose a paper on the subject and, before he graded them, assured the students that his own views would not interfere with the marking process.”

Mr. Morgenthau, an opponent of capital punishment himself, has until early November to announce whether he’ll seek death for Mr. Arthur, a 19-year-old former student of Levin’s. The suspect is accused of killing Levin last May. Investigators have said that Levin was shot once in the head in his Upper West Side apartment after being bound with duct tape and threatened with a steak knife to get him to reveal his bank card number. In the days after Levin’s death, both Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki called on Mr. Morgenthau to seek Mr. Arthur’s execution, and Mr. Pataki even hinted he would supersede Manhattan’s top prosecutor if he declined, as he has thus far, to seek the ultimate punishment.

Mr. Morgenthau’s office wouldn’t confirm receiving the letter or comment on the Levin case. But Mr. Ricco, contacted by The Observer, confirmed that he had sent the letter and verified its details.

The letter, dated Sept. 24, offers a look at the highly unusual strategy the defense seems to be using to spare Mr. Arthur, who maintains his innocence. Mr. Ricco told The Observer that he and his team had spoken with nine former students of Levin-though he wouldn’t identify them by name-and that they had said Levin had spoken out against the death penalty in his class.

“I thought about it and said, what is the most positive thing that we can put forth to prevent [Mr. Arthur's execution]?” Mr. Ricco said. “We could come up with nothing more positive than his legacy and what he taught his students.”

No Interview With Rabbi

Mr. Ricco said that he had thought about seeking out the Levin family’s views of capital punishment-but had later rejected the idea: “We at one point had talked about contacting his father’s rabbi, [but] we thought that would be viewed negatively,” Mr. Ricco said.

A dapper man who favors a bow tie, a clean-shaven head and throwback Malcolm X glasses, Mr. Ricco is well known among New York’s defense attorneys. He represented a co-defendant of Lemrick Nelson Jr. in the Federal prosecution of the Yankel Rosenbaum murder case, and also represented Ibraham Elgabrowny, a defendant in 1995′s trial of 10 men charged with plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

For his part, Mr. Morgenthau, who knows Mr. Levin personally and sits with him on the board of the Holocaust museum, has said he would like to hear from the Levins while mulling whether to pursue the death penalty.

Whatever the outcome, Mr. Ricco’s strategy marks a strange twist in a tale that horrified a city that has been celebrating its historic drop in crime. The murder not only was a reminder that crime has hardly been wiped out, but also served as something of a parable of the times, and was even seen as a cautionary tale about life in urban America. Levin had eschewed his position as scion to one of the city’s leading power brokers for a more modest role as friend and mentor to poor kids in the Bronx. The 31-year-old teacher reportedly took students out to dinners and outings, brought a radio to class to listen to rap and even rapped himself. In the end, though, he fell victim to violence, allegedly at the hands of one of his former students. Mr. Arthur has been described as a restless aspiring rapper who was expelled from Taft High School and did time for drug possession in an upstate boot camp for young first offenders.

Now, in a final irony, Levin’s reputation has been enlisted in an effort to spare his accused killer. “I don’t see it as a defense tactic,” Mr. Ricco said. “We live in an era where people are constantly talking about victims’ rights. Nothing is more appropriate than to put forward the victim’s opinion on the subject.”

A Morality Play

“Capital prosecutions are morality plays of a sort,” added Kevin Doyle, head of the state’s Capital Defender Office, which is aiding Mr. Ricco on the case. “So I think many prosecutors would find something odd about commemorating the life of a murder victim with a capital prosecution when the victim’s life gave witness to the values of compassion and understanding.”

Mr. Morgenthau may agree. The 78-year-old District Attorney has spoken out publicly against the death penalty. In his unwavering refusal to bring capital prosecutions in Manhattan, he has stood fast against the gale force of political pressure that buffets his downtown fortress each time a splashy murder shakes up the city.

But now Mr. Morgenthau has had to grapple with two high-profile decisions that have come in rapid succession. In addition to Mr. Arthur’s case, Mr. Morgenthau announced on Oct. 7 that he’ll bring life without parole against Scott Schneiderman, who allegedly killed a cop during a robbery of his estranged father’s Chelsea duplex.

Given those lurid murders, the buzz in defense circles is that Mr. Morgenthau may not be able to hold out much longer. The New Yorker reported in July that people within Mr. Morgenthau’s office see the Levin murder, with its strong suggestions of premeditation, as a “natural death penalty case.”

Still, if Mr. Morgenthau doesn’t seek Mr. Arthur’s execution, few expect Mr. Pataki to make good on his quasi threat to supersede him. Although Mr. Pataki did yank Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, a death penalty opponent, from a case last year, it doesn’t seem likely that Mr. Pataki would pick a public fight with Mr. Morgenthau, who is widely esteemed by Manhattan’s legions of private-sector lawyers.

“Morgenthau is an extremely powerful figure on the New York landscape and I can’t imagine he’d take the indignity of that lightly,” said one defense attorney.

Still, Mr. Ricco isn’t taking any chances.

“I practice under the philosophy that [a capital prosecution] is possible,” he said. “Right now, the thrust of our strategy is to prevent [Mr. Arthur] from being prosecuted in a capital case.”