Rick, May 15, 2006 (view all comments by Rick)
Just because you disagree with Junger's conclusions doesn't mean he's written a bad book. "A Death in Belmont" is intriguing and unforgettable -- and whether you agree or disagree, it's worth discussing. A must-read!
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A tragedy occurred for my family in Belmont, Mass. on March 11, 1963 when my mother was murdered by a man sent by an employment agency to clean our home. Sebastian Junger who was a baby at the time lived with his parents on the other side of town, 1.25 miles away. Separating our two homes were 95 houses,15 intersecting streets and the town center which has at least 40 stores.
Junger claims, but gives no proof, that Albert DeSalvo who once confessed but later recanted to being the "Boston Strangler" was working for his mother the day my mother died. By the way DeSalvo claimed he killed many woman, but denied my mother's murder.
Junger wants to create a mystery or he will have no story. Actually, although Junger tries every way possible to cover up the truth, Roy Smith was fairly prosecuted and convicted. Roy Smith had a history of theft. alcoholism and violence which is documented in Junger's book. However the very strong evidence against Smith is either omitted of obfuscated in the story.
Smith's conviction was appealed in 1966 a fact which Junger never mentions. The appeal was denied and the conviction upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1966.
Here is what they found
2. There was no error in the denial of the motion for a directed verdict. The evidence was circumstantial. The jury could have found as follows: On the morning of March 11, 1963, the defendant walked from his apartment at 175 Northampton Street, Boston, to the district office of the Division of Employment Security on Huntington Avenue. Between 11:45 A.M. and 12 noon he left that office with an identification card introducing him to Mrs. Goldberg at 14 Scott Road, Belmont, and a slip directing him to that address. The interviewer at the employment office, thinking that she detected liquor on the defendant's breath, had asked if he had been drinking. He had "leaned a little backwards . . . [and] said no" and the interviewer, then thinking he had not been drinking, had sent him out. The defendant arrived at the Goldberg house about 12:45 or 1 P.M. He later told the police that he arrived before noon and left at exactly 3:45 P.M. The jury could have found, however, from the testimony of several other witnesses, that he left the house at about 3:05 P.M. Israel Goldberg, the murdered woman's husband, telephoning from his place of business in Chelsea, spoke with his wife at about 2:20 P.M. Goldberg arrived home at about 3:50 P.M., found his wife's body in the living room and telephoned the police. They arrived in a few minutes and found Goldberg excited, nervous and hysterical. Mrs. Goldberg had been strangled with one of her stockings; the disarray of her garments and the bodily exposure (with the later report of a microscopic examination and related testimony of Goldberg) tended to show rape. The living room was in disorder, most of the furniture was in the middle of the room, the divan was pushed to one corner, living room ornaments were on the dining room table, and the vacuum cleaner, with attachments, was in the center of the living room.
Palm or fingerprints, later identified as the defendant's, were, in due course, found on the mantel in the living room, on the mirror hanging above it, and on the vacuum cleaner. After his arrest, the defendant told the police that he cleaned several rooms, got all through with his work and left the rooms in order; also that he did not clean the mirror, that he "didn't have anything to do" with it and he did not recall seeing a mantel.
Children coming home from school about 3 P.M. and soon thereafter playing ball in the street saw the defendant on the street near the Goldberg house and saw Goldberg come home; they did not observe anyone else in the street near the house in the interval. Their opportunity for observation extended over a good part though not all of the time between the defendant's departure and Goldberg's return. A practical nurse employed in the house next to the Goldberg residence was watching the children in the street from about 3:25 P.M. until about 3:45 P.M. She saw no one around the Goldberg house other than the children. She saw Goldberg come home
The defendant told the police that he had $2 with him when he went to Belmont on March 11 and that he was paid $6.30 for his work at the Goldberg house. He had $3.20 with him when arrested. Goldberg had left bills (one in the amount of $10, five in the amount of $1) on the night table in the bedroom before leaving home in the morning, after having a conversation with his wife. This was for her use in paying the expected cleaning man. He had given his wife $7 on March 10 for some purchases; she had not spent it all. In the afternoon of March 11 her pocketbook was found open on top of a bureau with the wallet missing. The money was gone from the night table. The defendant on the evening of March 11 was seen with a ten, a five and some one dollar bills when he purchased whiskey. He made other purchases and expenditures between 3:05 P.M. on March 11 and the time of his arrest on March 12. The total of these was in the range of $15.
This evidence was sufficient to take the case to the jury. (FN 5) Commonwealth v. Richmond, 207 Mass. 240 , 243-245, 246-247. Commonwealth v. Smith, 342 Mass. 180 , 182-184. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 . Commonwealth v. Connors, 345 Mass. 102 . See Commonwealth v. Bonomi, 335 Mass. 327, 356, and cases cited. "Reasonable and possible" inferences were enough. Commonwealth v. Merrick, 255 Mass. 510 , 514. The jury could have found unusual opportunity, motive, possession after the crime of unexplained funds, incriminating action in leaving the house in disorder and the work unfinished, and subsequent conduct and false statements showing consciousness of guilt. Evidence of consciousness of guilt, while not conclusive, may with other evidence be sufficient to prove guilt.
Commonwealth v. Curry, 341 Mass. 50, 55, and cases cited. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 , 713.
This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact, such as Commonwealth v. Fancy, 349 Mass. 196 , 200
If you read the book without this information you will be purposely led in an entirely different direction.
Junger states that at first the police thought Smith was the Boston Strangler. Not true. I was told by police officials in the early evening of March 11, 1963 that Smith was a parolee who had been in prison during many of the strangling murders. I was told that night by the same officials that there was no one person committing these crimes. Roy Smith was not suspected of any of the other murders.
Junger puts me in the courthouse when the verdict is announced and describes my thoughts concerning Smith's reaction. Here are two gross errors, I wasn't there, I was in Connecticut. How could he say what I thought without inventing the words himself? This book many times crosses the line into fiction.
Junger tells of a man in work clothes looking for odd jobs on my street on the day of my mother's death. This is undocumented. The man who supposedly saw the fellow in work clothes is never named and no one on our street was an elderly fellow with an ill wife. The children who were playing on the street noticed no one, but Smith.
Junger states that Smith never lied, but if you read the above Court opinion carefully you will find that Smith lies many times. He also told the police he was paid $6.30. That's $1.50 for four hours and .30 for transportation. We know from witnesses that Smith was at our home for no more than 2hours and 20 minutes instead of the four hours he claimed. He never finished the work and left the house in good order as he claimed.
Smith was never exonerated, but his sentence was commuted for good behavior and because he was suffering from terminal lung cancer, according to his lawyer.
If you read this book watch out for phrases like "He must have thought" or "he probably" or "Certainly" The reader is always being led.
Smith was acquitted of rape because he had an excellent defense attorney.
Junger who calls himself a journalist has presented us with a novel. If you read this book keep the Supreme Court Opinion nearby so you can stay afloat on Junger's sea of fiction
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The courtroom scene in Sebastian Junger's "A Death in Belmont" is one of the book's dramatic highlights. In 1963, a black man named Roy Smith is on trial in Cambridge, Mass., for murder. He has been falsely accused of the crime, Mr. Junger suggests, by a racist legal system that is overlooking the more likely killer: the Boston Strangler. When the all-white jury convicts Smith ...
of murdering Bessie Goldberg, Mr. Junger reports, the victim?s daughter, Leah, is in the courtroom, thinking that the man who killed her mother ?looked utterly impassive, as though he expected this and didn?t much care.?
The shipwreck in Mr. Junger?s best-selling ?The Perfect Storm? (1997) left no survivors, but many of the people involved in the story of Bessie Goldberg?s murder are still alive. For instance: Leah Goldberg (now Scheuerman). It turns out that she was not even in Massachusetts on the day Mr. Junger describes. She remembers exactly where she was, because the date was Nov. 23, 1963?the day after the assassination of President Kennedy. ?I was in Connecticut, glued to the TV, like everyone else in America,? Ms. Scheuerman told me. She also recalls her mother?s age when she died: Bessie Goldberg was 63. Mr. Junger says she was 62.
I called Ms. Scheuerman and other principals in the case, including prosecutors and Smith?s defense attorney, because so many of the book?s descriptions raised red flags that I felt compelled to get at the truth of the matter. I?m a district attorney, and reading ?A Death in Belmont? seemed like going through the files of a bungled investigation.
Roy Smith, an ex-convict with an extensive criminal record and a drinking problem, was sent by the Division of Employment Security to clean the home of Bessie and Israel Goldberg on March 11, 1963. Bessie was home alone in the upper-middle-class suburb of Boston. Witnesses saw Smith leave the house 45 minutes before the arrival of Israel Goldberg?who discovered his wife?s body and came running outside, shouting that his wife had been murdered. The house was in disarray; money was missing; Bessie Goldberg had been strangled and her clothes were torn.
That night, Smith went on a drinking spree with more money than he could later account for, dodging the police until he was eventually arrested the next day. Although the crime occurred at a time when the city was in a state of high tension over killings that had been dubbed the ?Boston Strangler murders,? Smith was quickly eliminated as a suspect in those crimes because he had been in jail on unrelated charges when most of the murders were committed.
In the Goldberg killing, a wealth of circumstantial evidence convinced a jury that Smith was the killer (he was acquitted of a rape charge?which would seem to undermine the suggestion that Smith was the victim of a racist rush to judgment). Mr. Junger discusses the death penalty at length, creating the impression that Smith might well have faced execution, but Massachusetts had functionally abolished capital punishment, executing its last inmate in 1947. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.
MR. JUNGER WRITES that ?the truly innocent are both a kind of prison royalty and uniquely damned, and for one reason or another, Roy Smith joined their ranks.? The wrongful conviction of this ?truly innocent? man is core to the book, but the more I looked into the case, the more I realized that Mr. Junger had selectively chosen facts and quotes from sources that would tell the story he wanted to write. The author doesn?t use direct quotes from Smith?s long-time defense attorney, Beryl Cohen, or from the prosecutors in the case, or from any of the principal characters in the case. Leah Scheuerman told me that she spoke with Mr. Junger but then became so concerned about the direction of his story that she withdrew her cooperation.
Mr. Junger maintains in the book that the entire prosecution was based not on catching Smith in a lie but on his truthful statements to investigators: ?The logical problem with the state?s case ? is that its core elements are known only because he told the truth.? Yet Smith?s own words to the police are damning.
It would take a book in itself to address all the gaps and tangled thinking in ?A Death in Belmont,? but let?s take one point: As Leah Scheuerman observes, if we do indeed accept Smith?s word that he finished cleaning the house and left at 3:45 p.m. (witnesses put the time at 3:05), then, given that her father arrived at 3:50, there would have been only five minutes for anyone other than Smith ?to break down the back door, kill my mother, mess up the just-cleaned house, move the furniture around and somehow place Smith?s fingerprints on a mirror he told police he had never touched.?
Smith?s case was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court?a fact that would seem ripe for use in a book concerned with his wrongful conviction, but Mr. Junger does not mention it. The legal challenge didn?t center on malfeasance suggesting Smith?s innocence but on the contention that the jury should not have been deliberating with emotions running so high over President Kennedy?s assassination. As the court stated, rejecting the appeal: ?This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact.?
?A Death in Belmont? is a story of personal importance to the author. When Mr. Junger was an infant living in the same town as the Goldbergs around the time of the murder, his parents hired a contractor who in turn used a worker named Albert DeSalvo?the man who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler. But readers expecting Mr. Junger to have unearthed new evidence pointing to DeSalvo as Bessie Goldberg?s murderer will be disappointed; there isn?t any.
RUTH ABRAMS WAS one of the two assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Smith. She went on to serve on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and retired in 2000. Mr. Junger interviewed Ms. Abrams, but she is not mentioned in the book. Ms. Abrams told me that she remembers the case well and that she never doubted Smith?s guilt. ?Either Smith did it or her husband did,? she says, ?and all the evidence pointed to Smith.?
Though at some junctures Mr. Junger says he?s wrestling with the question of Smith?s guilt or innocence, the pose in unconvincing. ?All governments are deceitful?they?re deceitful because it?s easier than being honest,? he writes. As a consequence, he says, ?there are significant numbers of innocent people in prison.?
That thinking conforms with the message sent by many popular books, movies and TV dramas. But a real-world study last year, led by University of Michigan Law Prof. Samuel Gross, documented just under 400 exonerations between 1989 and 2003?out of more than 10 million felony convictions. Mr. Gross says he suspects that many more exonerations went uncounted, but even if the actual number of wrongly convicted innocents is 10 times Mr. Gross?s count, the legal system is 99.998% accurate.
Far from being later exonerated (as Mr. Junger implies and as publicity material for the book outright claims), Smith was simply the beneficiary of the generosity of Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts?s governor at the time, who commuted his sentence in 1976. (Prisoners ?are getting out right and left,? Smith wrote from prison. ?This year?s been like cake and honey for lifers?). Smith?s guilt or innocence was not addressed; the commutation was issued?as Smith?s defense attorney told me?strictly because of the convict?s good behavior and his failing health. Smith died of cancer three days after being paroled.
In the afterword of ?The Perfect Storm,? Mr. Junger tells of a dream he had in which a key character who died aboard the Andrea Gail comes up to him and says, ?So you?re Sebastian Junger. I liked your article,? and then shakes his hand.
I wonder if Bessie Goldberg will ever visit Mr. Junger in the deeps of his dreams.
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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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W. W. Norton & Company -
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Bessie Goldberg was strangled to death in her home in Belmont, a Boston suburb, in March of 1963 — right in the middle of the Boston Strangler's killing spree. Her death has not usually been associated with the other Strangler killings because Roy Smith, a black man who was working in Goldberg's house that day, was convicted of her murder on strong circumstantial evidence. But another man was working in Belmont that day: Albert DeSalvo, who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler, was doing construction work in the home of Junger's parents (the author himself was a baby). Could DeSalvo have slipped away and killed Bessie Goldberg? Junger's taut narrative makes dizzying hairpin turns as he considers all the evidence for, and against, Smith or DeSalvo being Goldberg's killer; he also reviews the more familiar case for and against DeSalvo being the Strangler — for there are serious questions about his confession. As Junger showed in his bestselling The Perfect Storm, he's a hell of a storyteller, and here he intertwines underlying moral quandaries — was racism a factor in Smith's conviction? How to judge when the truth in this case is probably unknowable? — with the tales of two men: Smith, a ne'er-do-well from a racist South who rehabilitated himself before dying in prison; DeSalvo, a sexual predator raised by a violent father who was stabbed to death in prison. This perplexing story gains an extra degree of creepiness from Junger's personal connection to it." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day"
by Gary Krist, The Washington Post Book World,
"The result is a book full of unanswered questions — a book that is at once less satisfying and yet even more intriguing and unsettling than The Perfect Storm....Junger adeptly pulls together the various elements of this complex narrative, setting accounts of the Goldberg murder trial and Roy Smith's history against the backdrop of the Strangler hysteria that gripped the public for the better part of two years." (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
"An intriguing crime story that also contains painful truths about race and justice in America."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"[Junger's] ripping, highly readable drama of crime and punishment highlights the random chance that often separates victim from survivor....A meticulously researched evocation of a time of terror, wrapped around a chilling, personal footnote."
by Library Journal,
"As usual, Junger has written a well-documented page-turner that leaves us wanting more....Highly recommended."
by Alan M. Dershowitz, The New York Times Book Review,
"[R]iveting....A Death in Belmont, though nonfiction, reads like a novel. Its narrative line is crisp....[A] worthy sequel to The Perfect Storm."
by Entertainment Weekly,
"[A]s A Death in Belmont shows, [Junger is] a hell of a storyteller....In the end, you can't help feeling that A Death in Belmont might have made a better magazine article than a 266-page book. (Grade: B+)"
by Denver Post,
"Sebastian Junger knows a good story when he comes across one. Fortunately for his readers, he also know how to flesh out such stories and then tell them in a beguiling and silky prose style."
by Cleveland Plain Dealer,
"The publisher boldly compares A Death in Belmont to In Cold Blood, but it is too flatly written to approach Truman Capote's masterpiece. Junger can quickly slide into the prosaic, though here his sentences serve his topic well enough."
by Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram,
"A Death in Belmont investigates the puzzling, lurid drama of the Boston Strangler....In a book as good as this one, conjecture rings with the force of conviction."
by Chicago Sun-Times,
"Junger's failure to couch his material in a consistently compelling narrative is the problem. And for all their fleshing out, his tragic characters remain curiously flat as well."
by David Mehegan, Boston Globe,
"The perfect story..."
by William Georgiades, New York Post,
"4 stars....Sebastian Junger's first brush with horror came early....Wondering if DeSalvo may have killed his neighbor, Junger exhumes the evidence in both cases. He recounts the crimes and trials and interviews witnesses, including his parents. As he goes deeper, the story becomes that much more awful, a commentary on racial assumptions and the illusion of suburban safety."
by Lev Grossman, Time,
"In DeSalvo's dark world, Junger's clear, beautifully reasonable writing is the literary equivalent of night-vision goggles....He's navigating a maze of shadows, and you can see all the more clearly what an enormously skillful prose artist he is."
In the spring of 1963, the quiet suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts, is rocked by a shocking sex murder that exactly fits the pattern of the Boston Strangler. Sensing a break in the case that has paralyzed the city of Boston, the police track down a black man, Roy Smith, who cleaned the victim's house that day and left a receipt with his name on the kitchen counter. Smith is hastily convicted of the Belmont murder, but the terror of the Strangler continues.
On the day of the murder, Albert DeSalvo--the man who would eventually confess in lurid detail to the Strangler's crimes--is also in Belmont, working as a carpenter at the Jungers' home. In this spare, powerful narrative, Sebastian Junger chronicles three lives that collide--and ultimately are destroyed--in the vortex of one of the first and most controversial serial murder cases in America.
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