Sunday, May 21, 2006

How Soon They Forget

Sebastian Junger, he of the pretty facial features and considerable fame and fortune from his book The Perfect Storm, was in town the other day. He's written a new book, A Death in Belmont, about his family's brush with the Boston Strangler. I wish I could have made it to the appearance. There's a question I'd love to have asked him: why do you think you've avoided James Frey's fate?

Frey, of course, is the Shaker Heights native and the author of the harrowing substance-abuse memoir A Million Little Pieces, which was famously revealed as a substantial fraud. But Junger had his own brush with a similar situation nine years ago. Only to the media's great shame, it's largely been forgotten.

In a front-page piece in the New York Observer (no longer online, but
this Boston Phoenix piece masterfully recounts the controversy) in 1997, Warren St. James described how Junger's sloppy reporting and possibly nonexistent "facts" marred the story. St. James later went on to the New York Times, as have so many former writers for the salmon-colored New York weekly, which has become something of a farm team and a finishing school for the paper of record. That progression has, of course, rung doubly loud since it was the Times' relentlessness on the Frey story that ultimately embarrassed Oprah and Frey's publisher to stop defending the indefensible. (Junger had his own little drama with an appearance on the Oprah show, as this piece in the Sacramento Bee explains).

Throughout the Frey controversy, I kept checking various coverage, waiting for the inevitable story in which various similar cases were recounted, including Junger's. It never came, at least that I could find (please, dear reader, if you know of something, do tell).

So I'm left with two conclusions. One is no surprise: we have a short national memory. But the other is perhaps more troubling: unless you get caught up in a big media feeding frenzy, you sometimes get a free pass for your crimes, although to be fair, this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by the energetic and generally authoritative book reviewer and investigative journalist Steve Weinberg, published a year after the controversy first broke, does find his mistakes relatively minor.

In that Phoenix piece, the author made an accurate prediction: "In the publishing world, Junger's reputation will probably not suffer." The good news, though, is that after the Frey case and the subsequent cleansing controversy, anyone caught again playing so fast and loose with the facts in a "nonfiction" book probably will suffer considerably. So there is a substantial silver lining after all.

5 Comments:

At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Sarah said...

John Berendt did the same thing in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (shifted the timeline and got creative with some facts), and hasn't suffered the ignominy of Frey, either.

 
At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Sarah said...

John Berendt did the same thing in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (shifted the timeline and got creative with some facts), and hasn't suffered the ignominy of Frey, either.

 
At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

beyond the nuttiness of discussing sebastian junger and james frey as if they were on equal writing ground, junger apparently got it right with perfect storm, so he obviously cleaned up his act. (even if every word in perfect storm was fabricated, it's still a great read.) anyway, you sound jealous of him, more than anything else...

 
At 9:35 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Damn, you caught me, anonymous. But you'll have to educate me on how Frey and Junger are so different, because I haven't read anything by either of them. But I've certainly read a lot ABOUT both of them, which seems to indicate a certain, shall we say, pulpiness to their writing...

 
At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The victim of Sebastian Junger’s story is my sweet and wonderful mother.

You are unaware that the book is not close to being accurate. Junger needed a story he could tie to his picture of himself and Albert DeSalvo. Unfortunately he chose my mother’s murder. Although the writing contains many inaccuracies I am most upset by the omission and obfuscation of the strong evidence against Roy Smith.

Junger never discusses Smith’s appeal of his conviction which in 1966 was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The opinion of the Court spells out the strong evidence against Smith which led the jury and the Court to the certainty of Smith’s guilt.

On page 256 of his book Junger states that Smith told the truth to the police. Smith lied consistently.

To summarize:

1. Smith lied about the time he arrived at our home.

2. He lied about the time of departure (only there 2 hours, instead of 4)

3. Smith told the police he had finished cleaning the house and left it in good order.

4. The house was in the midst of being cleaned when my mother was killed as all the livingroom furniture had been pushed to the center of the room, the vacuum cleaner was in the middle of the room covered with Smith's fingerprints. A mirror which Smith told police he had never touched was covered with window cleaner displaying Smith's prints.

5. Smith claimed he had been paid $1.50 per hour for four hours of work, plus .30 cents for transportation for a total of $6.30. We know from the testimoney of witnesses he was in the house for only 2 hrs.

6. He couldn’t account for the money,$15.00, (denominations the same as were left by my dad ) he spent.

7. He hid from the police.

8. He most likely was drunk when he arrived at our home.

DNA was not available until 1990. Circumstantial evidence is still used for conviction. In NYC a few years ago a mother and son were convicted of murder even though the police never found the body of the victim.

Also the police never believed Smith to be the Boston Strangler. State Police and FBI officials told my dad and me the night of the murder that Smith had been in prison during most of the other murders. They told us it was a robbery covered up by a copy cat murder.

By the way I was never in the Courthouse when the verdict came down and I never told Junger what I thought of Smith's demeanor when he heard the verdict because I wasn't there to observe it. I did tell him that when I testified, which was two weeks before the verdict, that Smith seemed unemotional.

We did not live a few blocks from the Jungers. We lived 1.25 miles away on the other side of town. Between our two homes were 95 private houses, 15 intersecting streets, and about 40 stores in Belmont Center.

NOT TRUE

Junger states that on the day my mother died there was a man in the neighborhood dressed in work clothes knocking at doors looking for a job. Junger states that Steve Delaney, a private detective, told him the following story. When checking on Albert DeSalvo several years after my mother's death Delaney was told by the Belmont Police that an elderly man had called in this tip after he found that my mother had been murdered. Delaney then interviewed my supposed neighbor at his home. He had not offered a job to the fellow who knocked, but had turned him away quickly because the practical nurse employed by them to take care of his invalid wife had called to him. Junger says that the elderly man called the police after spotting the police cars in front of our home.



THE TRUTH: No one on our street or in eye sight of our home fit the description of an elderly man with an invalid wife who had hired a practical nurse. HOWEVER, our next door neighbor, Dr. Paul Faunce, had an invalid wife and employed a practical nurse. The Faunces were relatively young with a daughter, Susan, not yet in her teens. No one knocked at their door, in fact the practical nurse testified at the trial regarding the time the children were playing in the street. She watched them for quite a while and saw my father come home.

Delaney never gives the name of the elderly man or his address. Better still, the Belmont Police have no record of any such phone call or tip.

I do not wish my mother’s death to become a myth.

If you wish you I'll send you a copy of the Supreme Court Opinion. I'm attaching some
reviews.

Very truly yours,

Leah Goldberg Scheuerman

SATURDAY, APRIL 08, 2006

WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Perfect Muddle": Sebastian Junger's new book
SATURDAY, APRIL 08, 2006



A MURDER CASE REVISITED

BY JOSHUA MARQUIS
APRIL 8, 2006
Word Count: 1,379
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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