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A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
A Death in Belmont

rsclaw, April 18, 2006

"A Death in Belmont", Compelling Examination of Life, Death and the American Judicial System

Sebastian Junger's latest book, A Death in Belmont, is a gripping account of the murder of an elderly woman in the early 1960's in Belmont, Massachusetts. The victim, Bessie Goldberg, was raped and then strangled with her own stocking. A black, day worker, by the name of Roy Smith, was subsequently charged with the capital crime.

The evidence against Smith was compelling, but circumstantial. He was convicted by an all white jury of first degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole, but always maintained his innocence. His sentence was later commuted. However, he died in prison before his release.

What is fascinating about the story is that, unbeknownst to the jury, at the time of the murder a construction worker was quietly working at the author's childhood home just a few blocks from the Goldberg home. The construction worker was Albert DeSalvo. Sometime later DeSalvo admitted to police and prosecutors that he was the so-called "Boston Strangler". The Strangler's modus operandi was remarkably similar to the Goldberg murder. Interestingly, DeSalvo grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts virtually across the street from a building owned and operated by Bessie Goldberg's husband. Undoubtedly, their paths crossed in the past, long before the murder.

The author spent three years reviewing trial transcripts, interviewing witnesses, and researching the law. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, who was one of many Junger spoke to regarding issues of law. He also was interested in the history of Chelsea, where I practice, the hometown of the Goldbergs and DeSalvo.

As a legal practitioner, I found the book to be a masterful and extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. Most journalists would be reluctant to re-examine the facts of a recent murder case, where the trail is still fresh. In A Death in Belmont, Junger analyzes not only the facts of the Goldberg murder, but also the Boston Strangler murders. He traveled to rural Mississippi to interview Roy Smith's family. He talked to witnesses that were involved in the investigation of both the Smith case and the Strangler cases. He talked to sitting judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to get a sense of the type of justice that Roy Smith would receive today.

What is truly unique about Junger's approach is that he assumes the role of a well- informed juror and wrestles, along with the readers, about what is a true and just verdict. He does not answer the ultimate question, but rather leaves readers to reach their own conclusions. If the jurors had the benefit of hindsight, and knew that someone a few blocks away was an admitted mass murderer with a strikingly similar pattern, would they still have convicted Roy Smith? Can the public accept the notion that the criminal justice system is imperfect and necessarily must acquit in the face of reasonable doubt, even if in its heart it believes the defendant did the crime? Stated another way, Roy Smith may have committed the crime, but should still have been found not guilty.

As Junger explores these issues he takes us back to the early 1960's, where even in progressive Massachusetts there were profound racial problems. For example, at least one key witness recalls his attention being drawn to Roy Smith because he was the only black man in the area. Racism is so insidious that one can only speculate whether it quietly leaked into the case.

Bessie Goldberg's daughter, Leah Scheuerman, is publicly challenging the premise of the book. Understandably, she is upset that it reopens the wounds that were created by the untimely death of her mother. Nevertheless, unbiased readers could not reasonably deny that the case against Smith was circumstantial and the jury did not hear all of the relevant facts.

In Ms. Scheuerman's attack of the book she cites the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in the Smith case, where the Court upheld the verdict. Unfortunately, what she fails to convey is that an appeals court does not decide whether a person is guilty. Rather the Court is bound to determine whether, examining all the evidence in a light most favorable to the government, a rational finder of fact could convict the defendant. Even if a particular judge would have rendered a different verdict if he or she were a juror, the court is duty bound to sustain a conviction as long as the defendant received a fair trial.

It was once said that appellate judges show up on the battle field after the war has been fought and shoot the wounded. They do not replay the battle and change the outcome. Simply stated, they are primarily interested in whether it was a fair fight.

In 1960's terms, Roy Smith may have received a fair trial. That does not mean there shouldn't be an intelligent re-examination of the facts to determine whether justice was served. Sebastian Junger's work is insightful, and thorough. It transcends the cases, themselves. A Death in Belmont is a must read for anyone interested in the quality of the criminal justice system, in the past, present and the future. RSC

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