Joshua Marquis, April 21, 2006
From the WALL STREET JOURNAL - April 9:
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.