A Brilliant Mind Taken Before His Time
1/2 Joseph Levenson, 70, wants these words etched on the footstone of his son's grave. "My own words," he says proudly.
"He was a future leader," Tillie, his 63-year-old wife, interrupts. "Aaron was going to take over the family business."
Aaron Levenson, their 30-year-old son, was shot and killed last Oct. 4, the victim of a botched robbery outside the century-old family business, Royal Furniture Co., on South Monroe Street.
Now there are only memories. And the pictures and collages of Aaron in nearly every room of the Levenson home on Lincoln Avenue. The color portrait in the gold frame -- taken Christmas 1989 -- is extra special.
"We talk to that picture separately every night," Joe Levenson says.
"We say, 'Good night,' " said a teary-eyed Tillie Levenson, "and then I start crying and ask, 'Why did God let this happen to you?' We search for meaning, but we never get an answer."
Aaron was slain two years after having been mugged near his home in Otterbein. Aaron was hit in the head with a chunk of concrete by one of the robbers. Another man grabbed his wallet with $80. "Aaron lived in fear from that day on," Tillie Levenson says.
Aaron and his wife, Christine, moved to a $400,000 house in Baltimore County after the first robbery. When he was murdered, the couple had two daughters: one 3 months old, the other 3 years old.
Jeffrey Johnson, 26, a gospel singer, was sentenced April 16 to life plus 20 years after pleading guilty in connection with the murder. As part the plea bargain, prosecutors agreed not to ask the court for a sentence of life without parole. Sentenced to life plus 20 years, Johnson is to be eligible for parole in 20 years.
"We do not get any points for good behavior," Tillie says. "Thus, we have no chance for parole. We have to serve a true life sentence. We have to visit our son at his grave while the the mother of the murderer can still visit and talk with her son."
Co-defendant Marc Sean Howell, 20, was with Johnson the morning of the shooting but claimed he did not know a robbery was planned. The Morgan State University student was acquitted of murder charges after a jury deliberated for 10 minutes on March 29.
The Levensons listened in shock as the verdict was read.
"How could you possibly study three weeks of evidence in 10 minutes?" Joe asked. "They weren't searching for the truth."
"The trial washed me out," Tillie recalled. "The minute I would walk in this door each day I would scream. I was like a teapot filled up with steam and the lid just blew off."
Joe and Tillie Levenson have been completely consumed by grief. They are haunted by thoughts of the murder. And they are frustrated at what they see as the failure of the judicial system to adequately punish those responsible for Aaron's death. They want to devote their lives now to crusading for gun control and victims' rights.
"I really feel their pain," says Marc Howell, free for the first time in nearly six months. "It was a senseless killing. And it would be senseless to take my life for something I didn't do. I really feel bad for them, but the bottom line is that I wasn't responsible for their loss. I didn't do it and I didn't know. But I can understand how they feel."
Howell, who looks like he's still in high school, has moved back with the aunt and uncle who raised him in Mount Vernon, N.Y. They live in a big house on a quiet, tree-lined street.
"I can't go back to Baltimore," Howell says. "If I did, I'd have to live in fear Jeffrey would send someone after me. I don't think that's fair at all. Mr. Levenson is dead and Jeffrey is locked up for the rest of his life. Just over those few minutes. Life is so strange.
"Now," he adds, "I just wish for some kind of understanding."
Howell hasn't decided where he'll finish school. One of Marc's former teachers in New York helped him get a summer job teaching mentally retarded children.
"It's important to help kids," he says. "It's easy to get caught up in something that you don't want to. I never saw myself going to jail. It woke me up. Nothing in life is definite."
Alberta and Marvin Monroe, his aunt and uncle, say that they also woke up. Despite the acquittal -- and a late-night celebration at a bar with some of the jurors -- the Monroes are bitter and angry people.
Marc was a victim in this too, they say. He became "just another black kid" ensnarled in an overzealous investigation of a high-profile murder case involving a white victim.
"The system is totally screwed up," Alberta Monroe says angrily. "The trial was pure hell. I really wanted to fight. Where's the justice? I didn't see honesty there. And that hurt."
"They saw this as just another black kid whose family is not going to support him," said Marvin Monroe, a manager with a New York utility. "It was rush, rush, rush. If it had been a more thorough investigation, they would have seen that this kid was telling the truth all along."