Notwithstanding the recent decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue the death penalty in the upcoming Marathon bombing trial, it is abundantly clear that the tide of public opinion regarding capital punishment has been shifting. The latest poll, taken by the Pew Research Center, shows that the percentage of Americans who are in favor of executing those convicted of first degree murder has fallen from 78% in 1996 down to 55% in 2013. In recent years, moreover, several states have either established a moratorium on executions or abolished the practice outright.
This collective change of heart hardly reflects a “kinder and gentler” approach to punishment. Rather, many Americans and their legislators have become increasingly concerned about the hundreds of exonerations of condemned prisoners because of faulty evidence or faulty prosecutions. In addition, the murder rate in America is half what it was in the early 1990s when, according to survey data from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), support for capital punishment had reached its highest level at nearly 80%.
“Change is good,” they say. But according to one Democratic contender for Governor of Massachusetts, change shows weakness of conviction. Staring up in the political polls at front-runner Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman has criticized Coakley for flipping from pro-death penalty to anti-death penalty, the same change in outlook that has come over millions of Americans. Actually, as shown in the figure below, the decline in support for capital punishment has been shown among Democrats and Independents, but not Republicans.FULL ENTRY
I am disappointed, although hardly surprised, by the decision announced today that the federal government would be pursuing the death penalty in its prosecution of accused Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
There is no denying, of course, that Tsarnaev’s alleged crimes at and after last April's Boston Marathon were absolutely reprehensible, far more egregious than the misdeeds perpetrated by most criminals who have been put to death in America over the past few decades. Notwithstanding the horrible suffering that the defendant is believed to have caused, pursuing death would only increase his martyrdom status among those who claim his innocence and have characterized him as a political prisoner.FULL ENTRY
It is about time that we take a calmer approach to short-term fluctuations in crime figures, especially when they are based on a narrow time span. It is surely important for the Globe’s readers (as well as non-readers living or working in the city) to be informed of the sudden spike in murders since the beginning of the year -- specifically, 8 or maybe 9 this month so far compared with very few over the past couple of Januaries. But such trends can also be rather misleading.
Although only a limited number of years was available for today’s Globe piece, the longer time span displayed below tells us that January 2014 isn’t all that unique. More important, although the spike is unacceptable in terms of the pain and suffering it brings to many families, in all likelihood better days are ahead, no matter what the City’s strategic or programmatic response to the recent killings.FULL ENTRY
Three cheers for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in striking down all sentences of life without parole eligibility for juveniles. In its place, for the more than 60 lifers impacted by the ruling, the next most substantial penalty -- life with parole eligibility after serving 15 years -- will apply. Some of these prisoners, those who already have been incarcerated for longer than that minimum, will, after formal resentencing, start preparing their case for presentation to the Parole Board.
The SJC followed the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court. Over a series of decisions related to juvenile sentencing, including Miller v. Alabama, the highest court in the land has repeatedly maintained that kids are different -- different in brain development and how they assess consequences, different in their susceptibility to negative peer influences to do the wrong thing, and, most critically, different in their ability to change and mature over time.
The Supreme Court majority stated that juveniles should not be held to the same standard of culpability as adults, no matter how heinous the crime. Unfortunately, the Court failed to outlaw juvenile life without parole entirely, only mandatory life without parole, as being totally devoid of any discretion or flexibility. With today’s ruling, the SJC has now taken that final step, at least for Massachusetts.FULL ENTRY
Note: A longer version of this piece appeared in USA Today on December 12, 2013.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting that tragically claimed the lives of 20 young children and six staff members. While the local townsfolk opted not to hold any public observances, Gov. Dannel Malloy has asked that churches across the state ring their bells 26 times, once for each victim of the massacre.
Throughout the year, there have been heart-wrenching gestures of support for the grieving families, including a vigil with 26 candles attended last December by President Obama and moments of silence at sporting events around the country. Last April's Boston Marathon, before being eclipsed by its own catastrophe, was dedicated to Newtown, one mile of the race for each victim.FULL ENTRY
The just-released report on the Sandy Hook shootings does not reveal any real surprises about the gunman Adam Lanza, his background and behavior. The report fails to identify a clear-cut motive for the killing spree, a fact that might frustrate some of the surviving families and members of the community who seek to understand why the tragedy took place. Of course, even if Lanza had left a note detailing his purpose, the loss of life would remain unchanged.
Even without a clear resolution concerning Lanza’s motivation, there are some important takeaways that emerge from the document:FULL ENTRY
It hardly comes as a surprise that 14-year-old Philip Chism has been indicted for murder (as well as aggravated rape) for the death of 24-year-old Danvers teacher Colleen Ritzer, and will, therefore, be tried as an adult. The brutal nature of the crime and the circumstances surrounding it reflect murder, not manslaughter, and in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts all defendants age 14 and over accused of murder are automatically prosecuted in criminal court.
The problem is, however, that Chism is not an adult in any way, shape or form. Although teenagers sometimes act like adults, at least in terms of criminal behavior, they think like children when it comes to their capacity for making sound decisions. With the portion of the brain that evaluates options and their consequences not yet fully developed, adolescents act impulsively, failing to think through the likely outcome and aftereffect for themselves, much less for their victim.FULL ENTRY
Poisoned candy and razor-filled apples are long-standing urban myths surrounding the Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating. But Halloween mischief is a reality that is clearly reflected in crime statistics.
Certain days during the year tend to produce crime spikes. Violence frequently erupts by virtue of the usual activities (e.g., drinking, carousing, and partying with friends) that are associated with particular legal holidays and other unofficial occasions for diversion. As shown in the chart below, the aggregate number of serious violent crimes (homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) in Boston for 2006 through 2009 spiked significantly upward on three specific dates--January 1, July 4 and October 31.FULL ENTRY
They used to say that bad things come in threes. Well, apparently in today media-driven culture, two tragedies are enough to trigger inquiries about whether something is trending.
This past week has witnessed two particularly disturbing episodes of school-related violence. Two school teachers, both highly regarded by their students for their skill and dedication, were murdered allegedly at the hands of young teenage students. In Sparks, Nevada, 45-year-old Michael Landsberry attempted valiantly, yet unsuccessfully, to convince an armed 12-year-old middle school student to put down his gun and surrender. His heroism cost him his life. And locally, in Danvers, Massachusetts, Philip Chism, age 14, has been charged with the murder of 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer. Reportedly, Ritzer had volunteered to stay after school to help the student prepare for an upcoming test.
We are all saddened by the violent deaths of these two dedicated educators. But, despite the close timing, the world’s most noble profession is not the deadliest-- far from it. Without minimizing the terrible and senseless loss of life, that two of the more than 7 million schoolteachers were murdered in the same week does not signal an epidemic or suggest that it is suddenly open season on educators. Unfortunately, headlines like, “Two teachers killed this week: How safe are US schools?,” that appeared in Wednesday’s Christian Science Monitor (hardly a news outlet prone to tabloid journalism), tend inappropriately to scare the American public.FULL ENTRY
It is the criminal justice version of déjà vu.
Two years ago, the death sentence previously given to serial killer Gary Lee Sampson was appropriately overturned because of juror misconduct during his 2003 trial in federal court. So now, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz must prepare a recommendation for Attorney General Eric Holder on whether the death penalty should be sought in this case, just as former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan did a decade ago for then Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Consistent with federal rules, the families of Sampson’s victims must be consulted in reaching a recommendation on whether to pursue the death penalty. At least some of the family members are insistent that nothing less than death will serve the interests of justice. But let’s also consider what is in the best interest of society.
Gary Lee Sampson is now 54-year-old and will be locked up for life, or what’s left of it. After all, incarceration tends to shorten one’s life expectancy. The food, medical care, and living conditions are hardly ideal for maintaining the best health, not that I’m particularly concerned about his level of comfort. The point is that, should Sampson be given a death sentence in his penalty hearing do-over, he may not live long enough to see the executioner’s gurney. And even if he does become one of the small handful of prisoners put to death by the federal government, how many years of breath are we actually taking from him?
In the aftermath of Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington D.C. Naval Yard, many weighty questions abound surrounding the circumstances of the crime and the man believed to be responsible for the carnage. Perhaps the most disconcerting pertains to how Aaron Alexis, given his troubled past and troubled mind, could have security clearance that allowed him access to the military facility.
For us here in Boston, we might then wonder if another Aaron Alexis armed with security credentials and a cache of weapons would have access to one of our sensitive facilities. Sure, the Charlestown Naval Base was long ago closed and transformed into luxury condominiums. But across town on Albany Street stands a biological research laboratory that invites trouble and troubled people.FULL ENTRY
As a long-standing opponent of capital punishment, I was certainly encouraged by a first glance at the front page of today’s Globe. The top-left headline was a pleasant surprise: “Most want life term for Tsarnaev.
A new poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center had found that a healthy majority of local residents preferred a sentence of life imprisonment without parole eligibility over death for accused Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, if convicted. Overall, 57% of the 704 respondents felt that life without parole would be the best option, while 33% insisted on the death penalty and 10% were not sure.
Was it the recent news about the millions spent on prosecuting James Bulger who reportedly was willing to make a not-so-outrageous plea deal that would still have kept him locked up for life that made respondents displeased about the prospect of another long and expensive trial? Or was it a concern for not transforming Tsarnaev into a martyr in the eyes of others who hold anti-American attitudes? Or maybe, just maybe, it was a positive sign of civility and sensibility, even in response to an incredibly heinous crime.
A recent Boston Globe survey of the 12 candidates in the running to become the next mayor of Boston solicited opinions on a variety of public policy matters. Candidates were asked specifically about controversies over permitting casino gambling, Walmart and Chic-Fil-A in the city, and their responses were published on July 31, 2013.
Unfortunately, the candidates were not asked about a matter that, arguably, is far more critical to the safety and well-being of the residents of Boston than blackjack tables, discount stores or chicken sandwiches from a franchise owned by a gay-rights opponent – and that is whether to permit Level-4 biological research (involving such deadly agents as Ebola and SARS) to be conducted at the BU Biolab located on Albany Street in the South End.
As a South End resident who has written previously on this issue, I am concerned that this topic has not been on the front burner, and not addressed in the July 31 Globe survey. Actually, given the several mile radius that could be affected by a security breech at the site, this is not just a concern for neighborhoods in the South End and Roxbury, but for the entire city and the surrounding area.
Mayor Tom Menino is on record as being in favor of permitting Level-4 research at the Albany Street facility. But with his tenure drawing to a close and with the matter still open to debate, I approached the City Hall hopefuls two weeks ago with this inquiry:
"I write the “Crime & Punishment” blog for Boston.Com. I am surveying the mayoral candidates on the question of allowing Level 4 biological research to be conducted at the B.U. Biolab on Albany Street. I would appreciate a Yes/No response or a paragraph response …to be published on Boston.Com."
Most of the candidates responded, and more often than not with some explanation for their position. For one of the two candidates who did not respond, I borrowed a statement he had made just last week on the issue (as indicated).
Overall, the candidates tended to have a very different posture from Mayor Menino. The tally of opinions for permitting Level-4 research:
The responses are provided candidate-by-candidate in alphabetical order:
The cruise industry has been a favorite target for Congress and the media whenever bad things happen on the high seas, even though these occurrences are fairly rare. The latest attack from Washington, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) in particular, focuses on the risk of criminal victimization on board cruise ships that carry millions of vacationers ever year.
As a consultant to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), I recently examined crime incident data for the three largest cruise companies, which together represent nearly 90 percent of the industry, along with their crew and passenger counts adjusted for time on-board ship. I compared the rate of violent crime aboard cruise ships for 2010-12 against benchmarks for dry land drawn from FBI crime statistics for the only three offense categories for which comparable data are available--homicide, rape and serious assault.FULL ENTRY
On a recent program, CNN’s Piers Morgan asked Arnold Schwarzenegger his opinion on whether accused Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty. Although admitting that he was not fully informed about the case, the former Governor of California responded, “If convicted, I think that yeah, he should get the death penalty. Yes."
While Schwarzenegger, like the rest of us, is welcome to have and express an opinion, certainly the decision on such an important, life-and-death matter should not be based on what the majority of the public thinks or wants.
But what about the bombing victims and their families? Should their majority be a major factor on whether the Federal Government should seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev? And should their wishes be communicated to the jury?FULL ENTRY
It was a great day for so many folks: law enforcement professionals and others with more than a passing interest in the half-century old Boston Strangler investigation. With today’s stunning announcement, Albert DeSalvo -- considered by many (including his attorney F. Lee Bailey) to be the infamous Boston Strangler, yet doubted by others as a fraud -- was all but confirmed as the man who murdered Mary Sullivan in her Charles Street apartment in 1964. The last piece of evidence will soon be taken from the court-ordered exhumation of DeSalvo’s body, permitting forensic analysts to go the final step beyond an already convincing familial match between semen preserved from the crime scene to a biological sample recently taken from DeSalvo’s nephew.
Mary Sullivan’s family has indeed anxious for the long-awaited closure. Championed by nephew Casey Sherman, the Sullivan clan (joined by the DeSalvo family) had been convinced a decade ago that Albert DeSalvo’s shaky confession was pure fiction. The DNA tests arranged by Sullivan/DeSalvo alliance had apparently excluded Albert as Sullivan’s murderer. This revelation then served as the cornerstone of Sherman’s 2003 book, A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler, which persuaded many skeptics that DeSalvo was just a convenient scapegoat for a misguided and mismanaged investigation.
Ever since Aaron Hernandez was arrested on murder charges, and even days before that, the New England Patriots organization has come under some heavy criticism from the public and the press. Has the so-called “Patriot Way” hopelessly lost its way? Has the franchise’s moral compass gone haywire ever since Myra Kraft passed away?
As a longtime season ticket holder, I may have rose (and blue) colored glasses, but in my mind the Pats should be praised, not condemned, for its effort to rehabilitate Hernandez from his checkered past. The team took a chance on the University of Florida product, giving him an opportunity to turn his life around. It certainly backfired on the team, but not out of any fault of the Kraft family or the coaching staff.
The Pats were as stunned and surprised by the tragic turn of events as anyone. There is no way they could have anticipated that Hernandez would have gone irretrievably off the deep end. Time and time again, we see instances in which an offender's dark side is hidden from family, friends and certainly employers. The Patriots didn't have the benefit of a crystal ball when offering him a handsome contract extension last August.FULL ENTRY
“An educated consumer is our best customer,” said the late Sy Syms in a catchy marketing slogan for his chain of discount clothing stores. News reporting, like selling clothes, also depends on the intelligence of readers as well as their willingness to dig deep beneath the headlines.
Newspaper headlines are designed to grab the reader’s attention, not necessarily to tell the story. In fact, headlines can sometimes misinform more than they inform, and not just by virtue of their brevity. Headlines are crafted by a different hand from the one that reported the news.
An AP wire piece printed as a National brief on Page 2 of The June 17 Boston Globe carried the headline, “Death row inmate to be freed today.” The story line would certainly have suggested that the condemned inmate was about to step from the shadow of the death chamber into the bright light of freedom.
Unfortunately, this is the very type of scenario that stokes the public’s fear and serves as a powerful argument for proponents of capital punishment. “If we don’t kill him now,”so goes the refrain, “he’ll slip out the back when we’re not looking." Or, “You just can’t trust the criminal justice system to ensure justice for the victims.” And finally, “we need capital punishment to prevent dangerous killers from being set free someday down the line.”
"The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" proclaimed Chicken Little famously. Along her journey to inform the king, the frightened fowl convinced her friends Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey that their lives were in danger.
Well it seems that Chicken Little is alive and well, busily spinning local news stories. A Globe report earlier this week as well as a column in today’s paper noted a disturbing surge in gun deaths in Boston. As of June 11, there had been 17 gun homicides so far this year, compared to only 12 last year at the same time. That’s nearly a 50% jump.
In the children’s tale, Chicken Little met up with Foxy Loxy, who knew better than to get carried away. As far as this Professor Foxy Loxy is concerned, the apparent surge in killing reflects two statistical problems: focusing too heavily on a short-term change, and failing to consider a more reliable benchmark.FULL ENTRY
The word out of Hollywood is that Johnny Depp has pulled out of his commitment to play mobster Whitey Bulger in the planned film version of Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book, Black Mass. Apparently, the versatile and talented actor was unhappy with a requested $10 million pay cut for headlining in the struggling project. Too bad Depp’s decision was based on money, not an ethical statement concerning whether it is appropriate for a famous film star to pose as an infamous criminal.
Of course, Depp or whatever big name is chosen as his replacement would not be the first Hollywood celebrity to play some notorious murderer, rapist or thief. Few people would know of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were it not for the romance-infused performances of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Actor Tony Curtis enjoyed a significant career boost for his chilling portrayal of Albert DeSalvo in the box office hit, The Boston Strangler. The same was true for an up and coming Mark Harmon when cast as serial killer Ted Bundy in the 1986 TV miniseries, The Deliberate Stranger. And just a few years ago, the beautiful Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her role as part-time prostitute and other times killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, and, in the process, winning Wuornos some posthumous measure of sympathy.
Now that the controversy over Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s burial is over, it is time to move on to matters far more critical to our safety and security than where to put a dead body. In the wake of the Marathon bombings, law enforcement and security specialists have had to consider other events or locations -- sporting events and various gatherings of large crowds -- that could serve as attractive targets for terrorists.
One critical site that immediately comes to mind for me and many of my South End neighbors does not involve a crowd, but could threaten the lives of thousands, if not millions, should it be struck by a terrorist attack: the Boston University Biolab on Albany Street, just off of the Southeast Expressway.
This high-tech facility was constructed with support from the National Institute of Health to conduct Level-4 biological research on deadly pathogens like SARS and Ebola. While work with less dangerous infectious diseases has been ongoing for some time, push back from the neighboring communities has delayed the plan to upgrade to the highest security-level activity.
Strategically, the biolab opposition got off on the wrong path by focusing too heavily on the issue of race and class. Even though the closest neighborhoods are heavily minority, should human error or malicious acts cause toxic agents to be released, many more than those living or working in the few blocks of Roxbury and the South End surrounding the location would be affected and potentially placed under quarantine. Airborne germs would certainly not respect boundaries between the South End/Roxbury and Back Bay/Beacon Hill. The radius of impact could be as wide as five miles, which would include most of the city, its transportation hubs and medical facilities. Who would come to the rescue if all the local first responders are under lock down?FULL ENTRY
Earlier this week I published an opinion column in USA Today about how the controversy over where to bury – or if to bury – the corpse of a suspected terrorist had turned “Boston Strong” into “Boston Wrong.” The pride I had felt as a native Bostonian for the heroism demonstrated by so many public officials and ordinarily citizens after the marathon bombings was being eclipsed by shame and embarrassment for those who refuse to treat a dead body as a dead issue.
As I should have expected, the venom and vulgarity directed at the deceased Tsarnaev brother were redirected my way as soon as my words appeared in print. Just because I supported the fundamental decency of a burial, I was supposedly in support of the reprehensible act that the deceased had allegedly committed in life. That Tamerlan Tsarnaev behaved inhumanely apparently meant that we Bostonians had to act in kind -- in a manner that is anything but kind. My expression of compassion arguing that the family be allowed to grieve without protestors chanting for desecration of the remains was met with all sorts of ugliness and profanity, veiled threats and personal attacks, even messages of denunciation sent to my colleagues and co-workers.
Notwithstanding my position on the matter, I do respect the right for anyone to resist and resent the idea of having Tsarnaev’s body buried in our land. It is the disgraceful way in which they demonstrate their point of view that offends me.FULL ENTRY
By all accounts, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of two brothers suspected of having perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings, was a good kid, a bright young man and hardly the type of angry malcontent you'd expect of a terrorist. He graduated from the prestigious Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, where he starred on the varsity wrestling team; was named student-athlete of the month in his senior year; and earned a $2,500 scholarship from the city of Cambridge toward his tuition at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
Dzhokhar's older brother, Tamerlan, seems to have had a far less glowing past. The 26-year-old community college dropout had been arrested on charges of domestic violence. In recent years, according to relatives, he had grown increasingly religious, drawn to a more observant Islam and possibly anti-American ideology. By his own account, Tamerlan had felt friendless here in America. Despite all this, Tamerlan showed little indication of having the potential or the desire to commit an extreme act of mass violence, and was cleared in an FBI investigation two years ago. Friends and neighbors were unconcerned.
Given their fairly unremarkable lifestyles and reputations, why would the Tsarnaev brothers have allegedly engaged in such diabolical crimes? How could these young men have heartlessly murdered and maimed spectators at the Boston Marathon and days later fatally shot an MIT police officer?FULL ENTRY
How many times and from how many different camera angles are we to view yesterday’s finish-line blasts? Sure, the local media are all competing for viewers with their marathon coverage of the marathon bombings. But their obsessive highlighting of the moments of terror, rather that the response and recovery, has grown excessive.
It is important and helpful that the local television stations have switched to non-stop reporting of our local tragedy. We want to understand what happened and learn of the latest developments surrounding the investigation. We need to know how the city -- and city services -- are adjusting to the disruption in our normal routine. We watch with prayer hoping that the critically injured survive rather than add to the death toll. We also want to know what we can do to help.FULL ENTRY
The Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced on Thursday that it will honor the victims of the Newtown, Conn. shooting spree in this year’s running of the Boston Marathon. Apparently, this isn’t just another one of the countless sporting events that have respectfully remembered the innocent lives lost in that dreadful massacre. According the BAA president, the marathon carries “special significance” in that the 26 miles of the race course will serve as a tribute to each of the 26 victims (ignoring the final one-fifth mile leg of the 26.2 mile race).
Although well-intentioned, those at the BAA and countless other Americans are wrong every time they say that 26 were murdered by Adam Lanza. Sure, 26 were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. But the Newtown shooting spree included 27 homicide victims, if you include, as you should, Nancy Lanza who was fatally shot by her son prior to his assault on the nearby school.