Am close to finishing my latest book, Privileged Killers, where I take plea bargains and parole board decisions to task. These are two phenomena that’ve dictated court and corrections culture for years. Hopefully this tutorial will help writers, criminology students, true-crime fans, and others understand these topics.
Plea bargains are a win-win often. Suspects get to plead guilty to doing something less serious than what they’ve done in all likelihood. The joke is it’s like copping to double-parking in return for prosecutors dropping hit and run charges. Attorneys representing the State get spared the work and uncertainty of a trial. And, oh yes, they rationalize that this saves taxpayers lots of money. But in many cases, permissive plea bargains allow dangerous offenders to remain under the radar. And, when they re-offend – which nearly 44% do within a year – it costs taxpayers and harmed victims more than any savings.
Here are excerpts from Sebastian Junger’s A Death in Belmont** which touches on many of the issues. You writers will probably know that he wrote the blockbuster book, “The Perfect Storm,” which gave us a movie…and a phrase to use.
Discrimination claims another innocent black man?
On pages 208-9, Junger describes the prison behavior of a man convicted of a strangulation while the Boston Strangler was active. The house-cleaner and laborer, Roy Smith, was a black man who always professed his innocence and died while in prison before DNA testing “seemed” to confirm that Albert DeSalvo, not he committed Smith’s so-called crime. Discrimination at play? See here for more about racial bias.
The first excerpt below is Junger’s way of demonstrating Roy Smith’s character and showcasing Junger’s grasp of prison culture. Meal prep at Norfolk prison was inmates’ least favorite prison job because the kitchen steamed like a hot sauna and the work was grueling. But unjustly accused Smith may’ve found succor, calm in the work.
“Each meal was a massive undertaking under tremendous time pressure,and maybe that was something he could lose himself in.Much of the food was cooked in 80-gallon steel‐jacketed cauldrons that were stirred with wooden blades big enough to paddle canoes. It was brutal work that, if nothing else, might have put some muscle on the skinny Smith.
He must have done well in the general kitchen because after some years he was promoted to the smaller gatehouse kitchen outside the prison walls. He worked there without supervision—he could have walked away anytime he wanted—‐and was eventually put in charge of a six-man staff.
There was an inmate council at Norfolk made up of elected representatives from each dorm, but Smith saw no reason to involve himself in that. Nor did he play football or basketball or softball or join the debate team. In the 1970s the Harvard debate team took on the Norfolk debate in the prison auditorium and lost. Semi-pro sports teams also came to Norfolk to play the inmates and‐‐for the most part—to lose.
Smith was a heavy smoker and showed every sign deeply depressed, both of which would have kept him off the field, but he certainly would have watched the games. They were exciting, savage events‐the football in particular‐and even the prison staff found themselves cheering from the sidelines.
Claims of innocence.
One of the truisms about prison is that every prisoner claims he is innocent; the other is that only the prisoners know which ones really are. The truly innocent are both a kind of royalty and uniquely damned, and for one reason or another Roy Smith joined their ranks. It may have been because word got out that he had refused a plea bargain before his trial
Denial of a plea bargain.
The Middlesex DA’s office had offered Smith a deal in which he would plead guilty to 2nd‐degree murder in exchange for a 15‐year sentence. For a first‐time murderer facing the death penalty it would have been a deal worth considering. He didn’t.
Refusal to play Parole game.
Smith’s reputation as innocent could only have been reinforced by his first clemency hearing. Because parole boards generally insist that an inmate express regret for his crime, the hearings present an excruciating choice for the truly innocent
Do you salvage something of your life by mouthing regret for a crime you didn’t commit, or do you insist on your innocence and stay in prison until you die? For what its worth, Smith again refused to admit having anything to do with Bessie Goldberg’s murder.
‘Roy was extremely polite,” says George Bohlinger, superintendent at Norfolk while Smith was there. ‘He was not an ass kisser under any circumstances, he was just a gentleman And you knew it right away.
There’s probably not a person in that institution that doesnt say, “I m innocent,” or, “I committed four murders but I’m in here for one I didn’t do.” But I remember Roy telling me he didn’t do it, and he was one of the few people‐and there were some ‐where you had to think, “He didn’t do it’’
When Bohlinger took over Norfolk 1n the early 1970s he was 32 and the youngest state prison warden in the country. His philosophy about discipline was that he could bring an inmate to his knees faster with a pencil than with a billy club. Bohlinger lived for awhile in a room in one of the inmate dorms and walked freely around the quad and would stand and talk to groups of inmates as long as he could keep his back to something. He still cannot be in a group of people without having his back to the wall.
At any given time there were a hundred or so unarmed officers at Norfolk supervising about eight hundred inmates. Usually, 100 men can’t get 800 men to do anything without their consent.”
My take on unarmed guards.
In essense, guards need the cooperation of inmates to control inmates. Warden Duffy at San Quentin was one of the first to disarm his guards.
Prison authorities and guards tend to cultivate – and unfortunately to “illegally” reward – inmates within the prison population who can keep things calm. They’re encouraged to snitch if necessary, tho very, very discreetly. Sometimes it backfires and they, and the prison, pay a horrible price.
Stay tuned … and do us both a favor.
More info in future blogs about the Boston Strangler and DNA checks to resolve who he really was or is.
If you haven’t read Cleft Heart (see below), consider putting it on your Holiday gift list for yourself … and others.
**In a his book, Junger turns his attention to a brutal strangling that took place in his hometown of Belmont, in Massachusetts in 1963. In it he asks whether the man convicted of the crime, a laborer named Roy Smith, was, in fact, innocent, and whether Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed to being the Boston Strangler, could have committed the crime instead. The scary serial-killer strangled victims with nylon stockings, tied them up , and then had relations’ with their dead or unconscious bodies.
Plea bargains were the MO of career criminal Strangler suspect Albert DeSalvo.
To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.