Saturday, April 8, 2006

The Perfect Muddle: Sebastian Junger's new book

A Murder Case Revisited
By Joshua Marquis
April 8, 2006
review of:
A Death in Belmont, By Sebastian Junger Norton, 266 pages, $23.95

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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The New York Times has run a companion piece, informed by Leah Goldberg Schuerman.

April 8, 2006

A Murder Victim's Daughter Disputes Sebastian Junger Book

In a new book, "A Death in Belmont," Sebastian Junger, author of the best seller "The Perfect Storm," turns his attention to a brutal strangling that took place in his hometown, Belmont, Mass., 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.
Now, on the eve of the book's publication, the daughter of the victim is mounting a campaign to discredit Mr. Junger's book. "When the book is scrutinized, people will find it invalid," said Leah Goldberg Scheuerman, whose mother, Bessie Goldberg, was strangled in her living room on the day Mr. Smith came to clean the house. "This book is full of lies and omissions."
Mr. Junger, who spent three years working on the book, which is being published by W. W. Norton and arrives in bookstores April 18, has a personal connection to the case: Mr. DeSalvo, who died in 1973, worked for the Junger family for several months during 1962 and 1963, and was at their home, just over a mile from the Goldberg house, the day Mrs. Goldberg was murdered.
He said that it was family lore that Mr. Smith was innocent. "The story about Bessie Goldberg that I heard from my parents was that a nice old lady had been killed down the street, and an innocent black man went to prison for the crime," he writes in "A Death in Belmont." Mr. Smith died in 1976, just after the governor commuted his sentence.
In the course of researching the book, Mr. Junger discovered that the truth — or what he could learn of it — was much more elusive, and the book is a sort of journalistic meditation on doubt. "I literally wake up every day thinking something different about all of these issues," Mr. Junger said in a telephone interview. "Smith did it, Smith didn't do it, DeSalvo never hurt a flea, DeSalvo is a serial murderer. There is no fixed point in my mind. I wish there were."
In an earlier interview, Mr. Junger said: "The idea of coming up with a forgotten box of evidence was very appealing, but that wasn't going to happen in this case. I wanted to argue it on a sort of theoretical level. Let's take these facts and arrange them in the way that makes the most sense. I thought the only fair way to do this was to use the Socratic method with the reader. It's a way of treating the reader as an equal — what do you think?"
The book weaves back and forth between descriptions of the crime, the police questioning of Mr. Smith, the trial and details about Mr. Smith's earlier life in Mississippi, as well as his life in prison. Mr. Junger also goes into detail about the crimes of the Boston Strangler and Mr. DeSalvo's confessions — later retracted — to 13 of those crimes (although never to the Goldberg murder).
As Mr. Junger relates, the case against Mr. Smith was largely circumstantial: he had been sent to the Goldbergs' house that day by the Division of Employment Security to clean. A number of witnesses saw him walking through the streets less than an hour before Mrs. Goldberg's husband discovered the body, and, when arrested, he had more money than he would have been paid by the Goldbergs that day. Ms. Scheuerman, who was 24 years old when her mother was murdered, said there should be no question about Mr. Smith's guilt. Not only was he convicted in a trial, she said, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also upheld the conviction on appeal — a fact that Mr. Junger does not include in his book.
"He starts with a false premise and then goes into a false argument," Ms. Scheuerman said.
After "The Perfect Storm" was published, some factual inaccuracies in that book came to light in a 1997 New York Observer article that said Mr. Junger had made numerous errors, misspelling names and getting basic weather details wrong. More seriously, the article said Mr. Junger had inaccurately described the instability of the Andrea Gail, the swordfishing vessel that sank, and had unfairly depicted its owner as reckless and unsafe.
It also said Mr. Junger never talked to the captain of a sailboat that was caught in the storm and rescued by the Coast Guard. In the book, Mr. Junger paints him as incompetent. In the Observer article, Mr. Junger was quoted as saying, "He didn't sound like the kind of guy that I wanted to talk to."
In the paperback edition of "The Perfect Storm," which came out after the article appeared, Mr. Junger corrected a number of the errors and included an afterword offering the sailboat captain's version of events.
This time, Mr. Junger said, he hired a fact checker to comb through his manuscript. But Ms. Scheuerman said the book still contained a few outright errors, including Mr. Junger's placing her in the courtroom when the verdict was read. She said she was at home in Connecticut watching television reports of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Mr. Junger said his interview with Ms. Scheuerman had led him to believe she was in the courtrooom that day. "I may have misunderstood her," he said.
Ms. Scheuerman's bigger complaint is the things she said Mr. Junger left out. She also challenges his claim in the book that Mr. Smith "never lied about what he did that day." She said Mr. Smith had lied about a number of points, among them the time he arrived at the house, the time he left, how much money he was paid, whether he touched a mirror above a mantel (where his fingerprints were found) and the state of the house when he left. Mr. Smith said it was in good order, but when Mrs. Goldberg's body was discovered by her husband, the living room was in disarray, with the vacuum cleaner still out.
In the interview, Mr. Junger said that legal experts he consulted did not think the discrepancies were necessarily lies. "He's an alcoholic, he doesn't have a watch, he was drilled for 12 hours in a police station without a lawyer," he said of Mr. Smith. "The fact that he got an arrival time wrong doesn't necessarily mean he lied. He just could have been wrong."
Beyond disputing the facts in the book, Ms. Scheuerman said she felt she had been misled. In an e-mail message, which Ms. Scheuerman shared with The New York Times, Mr. Junger wrote: "I also should reassure you that I'm in no way trying to prove Roy Smith to be anything but guilty — only DNA evidence could do that. But I am very interested in this convergence of people in Belmont, and how the same story can be presented in completely different ways to a jury."
Starling Lawrence, Mr. Junger's editor at W. W. Norton, said that Ms. Scheuerman might not have fully absorbed what Mr. Junger was trying to tell her. "I don't want to sound like Bill Clinton talking about the meaning of 'is', " he said. "But it comes down to what you think the meaning of 'prove' in that sentence means."
Ms. Scheuerman stopped cooperating with Mr. Junger after reading what quotations and information he intended to use from her, and asked that all her quotations be removed.
Of course, it's not uncommon for writers and their sources to disagree over how facts should be interpreted, especially in such emotionally fraught circumstances. In the course of reporting a long article or book, writers will talk to many sources and try to gain their confidence. In doing so, they may cast their research in the most favorable light or leave out the full scope of their project. When the project comes out, sources may feel they've been betrayed.
And even among principals involved in Mr. Smith's prosecution, there are divergent opinions. Richard S. Kelley, 81, who prosecuted the case and went on to serve 15 years as a judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court, said in an interview that while he had no question of Mr. Smith's guilt, "because it was a circumstantial evidence case, I cannot exclude the possibility of someone else doing it."
But Ruth Abrams, a former prosecutor and retired supreme judicial court judge in Massachusetts who worked with Mr. Kelley on the case, said that convictions were not based on a standard of "beyond all doubt." She said: "It's beyond a reasonable doubt. Nobody would get convicted if it was beyond all doubt."
For Ms. Scheuerman, the issue is much simpler. "I would like my parents to rest in peace," she said.

Charles McGrath contributed reporting for this article.