Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Anatomy of a Political Hit

John Hosty was kind enough to let me post to his blog, so I am putting up an article I published last week out in the boondocks of Western Mass (where I live). Thanks to the internet it is getting extra play in places like Blue Mass Group and I have gotten some invitations to talk about it on the radio. An article I wrote last summer titled LaGuer Reconsidered explains some of the underlying problems with the case against the man Kerry Healey tried to turn into a winning campaign issue. LaGuer has maintained his innocence though 23 years of incarceration. His case is currently in the courts with a hearing scheduled for January.

Who Won? C'est LaGuer

The Anatomy Of A Political Hit
By Eric Goldscheider
November 9 2006
Valley Advocate

For more than two decades, Benjamin LaGuer has done everything in his power to get his claims that he was falsely convicted of rape into the public eye. Last month Kerry Healey turned him into a household name. What she neglected to mention, because it didn’t suit her campaign, was that real doubts about LaGuer’s guilt still linger. A challenge to his conviction is currently in the Supreme Judicial Court based on a potentially exculpatory fingerprint report that was withheld from the defense at trial and which emerged 18 years after that fact.

How did a case before the highest court in the state become a political football in the race to lead the executive branch? The answer is probably rooted in Worcester politics.

On September 20, when Deval Patrick’s convincing primary victory the previous day filled the headlines, what looked like minor machinations in a local Worcester county drama began to unfold. Gov. Mitt Romney nominated James R. Lemire, a longtime acolyte of retiring Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte, for a Superior Court judgeship. Lemire, a seemingly innocuous choice, happens to have been the prosecutor who convicted LaGuer in the trial where the fingerprint report never saw the light of day.

The Governor’s Council, which approves judicial nominees, held its hearing on the Lemire nomination on September 27. Peter Vickery, the western Massachusetts representative, surprised those attending by questioning Lemire about his role in the LaGuer case. Within hours of that hearing, Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella, another reliable Conte loyalist, spoke to a local Leominster reporter and fed him a one-source story on wanting to question Patrick about comments attributed to him on www.BenLaGuer.com, a website I have been editing for several years. The Patrick quote, which reads, “I therefore have serious misgivings about the integrity of the criminal justice system in this case, as I believe any citizen would,” had been raised briefly by the Boston Herald during the primary campaign in August. Patrick spokesman Richard Chacon quickly responded in an interview with the Sentinel and Enterprise, which covers Leominster. He defended Patrick’s interest in the case, adding that the comments stemmed from a time when the candidate worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People many years ago. The issue went away until Mazzarella resurrected it a month later.

To fully appreciate the dynamics of the LaGuer case, one has to know that through 23 years of incarceration, LaGuer has been in constant battle with Conte. The inmate became adept at asymmetrical warfare, using the media to embarrass his nemesis time and again while at the same time attracting top notch legal representation. Every time it looked like LaGuer was down for the count—even after a 2002 DNA test seemed to link him to the crime—he revived and came back with a stronger team. His current attorney, James C. Rehnquist, is the son of the late chief justice. Experts have recently gone on record to say that the DNA results look as if they stem from contaminated evidence. Through the years LaGuer won many battles, including a favorable decision by the SJC on the issue of juror racism, and the support of famous people like Elie Wiesel, William Styron, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and John Silber. LaGuer earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Boston University while in prison and won a prestigious Pen Award for his writing. But Conte always found a way to prevail in the end and keep LaGuer in prison. He blindly defended the integrity of the conviction, never once showing a willingness to look at new evidence. Now Conte is on the way out and the long-running LaGuer case is headed for arguments in the SJC. Promoting Lemire, who would not likely have kept his job as a prosecutor in the new administration, to a judgeship can be seen as a way to help insulate him from the consequences of foul play in the handling of a conviction Conte cares about deeply.

The timing of Mazzarella’s ploy to extract a statement from Patrick condemning LaGuer makes a connection to the Lemire nomination look like more than mere coincidence. Mazzarella’s credentials for speaking about the case rest on the fact that as a rookie police officer he was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the 1983 crime. He apparently accompanied the victim in the ambulance, but there is no record of his filing a report. The story Mazzarella fed to a local reporter about his concerns that as governor Patrick might give LaGuer preferential treatment appeared in print on Thursday, September 28. That afternoon the mayor went on the Howie Carr drive time radio show to begin a relentless attack on LaGuer and on Patrick’s connection to the case.

By the end of the day, Patrick crafted out a carefully worded statement saying that in his opinion “justice has been served” in the LaGuer case. Those wanting to ensure Lemire’s confirmation, which came to fruition with Vickery casting the lone dissenting vote, were undoubtedly pleased. The issue might have gone away again had two things not happened: 1) Mazzarella’s graphic and incessant recitation of the victim’s condition, combined with a linkage to Patrick, resonated with talk radio hosts and their audiences, triggering a hate-filled feeding frenzy on the airwaves. 2) In his statement, Patrick was untruthful about the extent of his involvement in the LaGuer case, repeating his characterization of it as a minor interest of more than a decade ago.

Early the next week a bombshell hit when the Boston Globe found a letter Patrick had written to the parole board on LaGuer’s behalf in 1998 and then resubmitted at a second hearing in 2000. Later that week it was revealed that Patrick had written a large check ($5,000 is the figure used, but Patrick has yet to confirm that number) in support of LaGuer’s quest for DNA testing.

With those revelations Patrick’s high-flying poll numbers right after the primary looked to be in serious jeopardy. The Healey campaign had just unveiled a TV ad lambasting Patrick for representing a Florida man and getting his death sentence for killing a police officer reduced to life in prison. The LaGuer issue must have seemed like a gift that for the next two weeks just kept on giving. The hate mongers on talk radio led the way. Robert Barry, the son-in-law of the woman LaGuer was convicted of raping, joined Mazzarella on that circuit in continuously repeating gruesome aspects of the crime in graphic detail. Barry even turned his celebrity status into a fundraising opportunity when one radio host, John DePetro, set up a way of donating to his wife, Elizabeth Barry, based on her diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The host spent hours hectoring Patrick to contribute to that fund.

The Patrick campaign seemed flummoxed by the day-in-and-day-out drubbing they were getting on the airwaves. Mazzarella demanded a meeting with the candidate and he complied. The Barry family created a mantra out of demanding an apology from him, prompting Patrick to call them and to offer his sympathy for pain the publicity around the 23-year-old crime was causing them. Robert Barry’s response was to publicly rebuke Patrick because he didn’t think his disavowal of LaGuer was strong enough. He and his wife invited television crews into their home and then endorsed Healey at a press conference where Elizabeth Barry, whose body is wasting from her disease, was wheeled in to appear with the Republican candidate.

The appearance meshed with Healey’s objective of somehow capturing the one-dimensional caricature radio hosts were painting of Patrick, basically accusing him of being in cahoots with a brutal rapist to continue torturing the victim’s family long after the crime. But Healey needed to figure out a way to bring this message to the wider public. She cut an ad harping not only on Patrick’s relationship with LaGuer, but on the fact that he dissembled when first confronted about it. This had the double effect of energizing her supporters while at the same time demoralizing Patrick’s constituency, shaken by the obvious discrepancies between his early statements on the case and the letters and financial contributions he later admitted to.

New polling numbers came out showing Healey pulling slightly ahead of Patrick among male voters, but still trailing significantly among women. That is when she made the fateful mistake of seizing on a Patrick’s on-camera statement that LaGuer “is eloquent and he is thoughtful.” Healey made it the centerpiece of her now-famous ad in which a woman enters a dimly lit parking garage. The tag line was, “Have you ever heard a woman compliment a rapist? Deval Patrick—he should be ashamed, not governor.”

Calculated to work the same magic with women voters as the incessant harping on the LaGuer connection seemed to be having among men, the ad backfired. It coincided with a report in the Boston Herald , widely assumed to be a Healey plant, insinuating that Patrick helped shield his brother-in-law from registering as a sex offender, prompting Patrick to give an impassioned statement ripping into what he called the “pathetic” tactics of his opponent, adding, “This is the politics of Kerry Healey and it disgusts me and it has to stop.” The bleeding for Patrick started to abate and the following week new polls came out showing him regaining a comfortable lead and more than half the voters having an unfavorable view of the Republican.

Healey opportunistically hitched her wagon to a powder keg and it blew up in her face. But she isn’t the first person to have been burned by coming in contact with the case of Commonwealth v. Benjamin LaGuer. The reason is that from the day LaGuer was arrested on July 15, 1983, it has represented a gross miscarriage of justice perpetuated by people with agendas that were less about getting at the truth than about winning and losing. At any time in the last 23 years Conte, the district attorney, could have taken a fresh look at new evidence that continued to emerge. Instead, he continually dug in his heels, allowing a festering injustice to build to explosive proportions.

That might explain why the press never bought into Healey’s strategy of using LaGuer as a frightful caricature. The Boston Herald turned to John Silber to counter the initial savaging of Patrick for writing on LaGuer’s behalf. It then ran a Sunday edition headline that screamed: “Healey Is a Hypocrite.” The lieutenant governor failed to engender credibility during four years in office and now she was coming off as shrill, shallow and disingenuous. Too many people in Boston’s newsrooms understood that the case against LaGuer wasn’t as clean as Healey made it out to be.

Those familiar with the police reports and hospital records know that LaGuer’s arrest was predicated on a lie. The lead detective, Ronald Carignan, settled on LaGuer based on his race and ethnicity and the circumstance that he happened to be living next door when the crime occurred. Once Carignan became fixated on LaGuer, the victim, who steadfastly denied knowing who it was who attacked her, corroborated his suspicions after her daughter Elizabeth Barry, according to the police report, “told her mother that she was going to stay in the apt (sic) and put herself up as bait” in order to entice the perpetrator to return.

From there the lies kept multiplying. Three weeks after the arrest Carignan, who has since died, told the grand jury which indicted LaGuer that the victim, who had a history of mental illness, identified him by name, something she strenuously denied under oath at the trial. Carignan even suggested that the crime had occurred in LaGuer’s apartment and said the victim was unable to appear at the hearing, neglecting to mention that she had already been discharged from the hospital.

The whole history of the case is rife with misrepresentations, distortions and missed opportunities (See: “LaGuer Reconsidered”, Valley Advocate , August 17, 2006). One that stands out is that at trial Carignan testified that he recovered only one partial fingerprint from the scene of a crime that was said to have played itself out over eight hours. Eighteen years later, in November, 2001, the report emerged showing that in fact four full fingerprints were retrieved from the base of the trimline telephone, the cord of which was used to bind the victim’s wrists, and that they belonged to someone other than LaGuer. Those prints, which the commonwealth has since lost or destroyed, are the basis of the current challenge to the verdict.

If Patrick spoke to his advisors familiar with Worcester politics, perhaps including Worcester Mayor Tim Murray, when Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella started nipping at his heals, they would probably have said that the LaGuer case has been a radioactive part of the county’s political scene for more than two decades. Patrick erred badly when he tried to make the questions about his involvement go away by immediately caving in to Mazzarella’s demands for a public repudiation of LaGuer. He further damaged his campaign by claiming that he had done nothing more than issue a statement on the order of 15 years ago. Patrick should have put the full extent of his involvement with the case on the table right away, rather than allow himself to be caught flatfooted by the drip, drip, drip of new revelations.

Healey, in latching onto what she obviously saw as an opportunity for political gain, chose to paint an entirely one-dimensional picture of LaGuer as a vicious animal—a word used over and over on the talk radio circuit— condemned not only by a 1984 jury but again by a 2002 DNA test. LaGuer became a seemingly legitimate target for a fusillade of hateful invective taken to a fever pitch. She cast him as a repository for the loathing of an entire state. Even uttering the words “eloquent” and “thoughtful” in connection with LaGuer was an act worthy of condemnation. The raw emotional impact of Healey’s divisive strategy was intoxicating. But a simple Internet search would have showed her that LaGuer’s case is currently in the courts and that four highly reputable experts have concluded that the DNA result is easily attributable to contamination. One of them, Harvard geneticist Daniel Hartl, went so far as to write, “There is, in my opinion, ample reason for a full inquiry into this case, and I hope that the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will agree.”

In the end, their handling of the LaGuer case in the heat of a political campaign didn’t do much for either candidate’s reputation. Ironically, the person who may have benefited the most from having been turned into a household name is Benjamin LaGuer himself. For 23 years his constant plea has been for people to look closely at the evidence and to concentrate on the facts. His case is in the Supreme Judicial Court, and oral arguments will likely be in January. If the one-dimensional image of him as a craven sociopath influences the outcome, Healey will have done LaGuer a tremendous disservice. If, on the other hand, his notoriety prompts the public, the press and the judicial system to take the time to study the history of the case and the issues currently at stake, the events of the last few weeks can only help his cause.

Amherst-based journalist Eric Goldscheider edits www.BenLaGuer.com

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