Friday, February 16, 2007

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger

When I read the newspaper or check the news online, I usually skip over crime stories. I may read the headlines and the opening paragraphs, if even that much, and go on to political, economic, and human interest stories. What can I get out of reading about another senseless murder? I'd rather spend my time with book reviews and stories about the arts and technology.

I was not a likely candidate to read A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger.

So, why did I do it?

Your honor and members of the jury, you might not expect me, mild-manner reader that I am, to take up a brutal book like A Death in Belmont. There are reasons that I acted so out of character.

  1. Lots of people were reading it. They kept recommending it to me. It was peer pressure.
  2. There just are not enough iPod books at my library. I have run through the ones that interest me. It was an act of desperation.
  3. I have recently seen two fascinating movies about Truman Capote's writing In Cold Blood. Junger's book also takes the readers back to the 1960s. I wanted another fix.

So, I plead that it was beyond my control to avoid A Death in Belmont. I listened to it on my iPod, and I do not regret a single minute. Well, maybe I squirmed while Junger described how the Boston Strangler killed some of his victims, and I almost wanted to cry when he told about the sad, sad fate of Roy Smith. I also felt exasperation and outrage during the reading of lengthy police interrogation of Smith. It was not pleasure reading, but it was compelling.

I promise now to read something more uplifting.

Junger, Sebastian. A Death in Belmont. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN 0393059804


Dan Trabue said...

Not on topic, but have you seen this:

It's a documentary film similar to the March of the Penguins. It documents the annual flocking of Librarians to the ALA.

Looks like the kind of thing librarians might like.

Leah Goldberg said...

Please don't feel sorry for Roy Smith. As the daughter of the murder victim in "A Death in Belmont" I can assure you that the book is an attempt to exploit a case which was adjudicated in a fair manner. Junger wants to capitalize on the picture he has of his mother, himself and Albert DeSalvo. The hard evidence against the convicted murderer is omitted from the book in order to present the reader with a mystery. The conviction of Roy Smith was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court a fact which Junger never reveals to the reader. The opinion by the Justices presents the evidence which follows in their opinion upholding the conviction in 1966.Any reader of this book needs to know all the evidence.

[350 Mass. 600]


Middlesex. February 7, 1966. -- April 15, 1966.

Present: WILKINS, C.


2. There was no error in the denial of the motion for a directed verdict. The evidence was circumstantial. The jury could have found as follows: On the morning of March 11, 1963, the defendant walked from his apartment at 175 Northampton Street, Boston, to the district office of the Division of Employment Security on Huntington Avenue. Between 11:45 A.M. and 12 noon he left that office with an identification card introducing him to Mrs. Goldberg at 14 Scott Road, Belmont, and a slip directing him to that address. The interviewer at the employment office, thinking that she detected liquor on the defendant's breath, had asked if he had been drinking. He had "leaned a little backwards . . . [and] said no" and the interviewer, then thinking he had not been drinking, had sent him out. The defendant arrived at the Goldberg house about 12:45 or 1 P.M. He later told the police that he arrived before noon and left at exactly 3:45 P.M. The jury could have found, however, from the testimony of several other witnesses, that he left the house at about 3:05 P.M. Israel Goldberg, the murdered woman's husband, telephoning from his place of business in Chelsea, spoke with his wife at about 2:20 P.M. Goldberg arrived home at about 3:50 P.M., found his wife's body in the living room and telephoned the police. They arrived in a few minutes and found Goldberg excited, nervous and hysterical. Mrs. Goldberg had been strangled with one of her stockings; the disarray of her garments and the bodily exposure (with the later report of a microscopic examination and related testimony of Goldberg) tended to show rape. The living room was in disorder, most of the furniture was in the middle of the room, the divan was pushed to one corner, living room ornaments were on the dining room table, and the vacuum cleaner, with attachments, was in the center of the living room.

Page *605

Palm or fingerprints, later identified as the defendant's, were, in due course, found on the mantel in the living room, on the mirror hanging above it, and on the vacuum cleaner. After his arrest, the defendant told the police that he cleaned several rooms, got all through with his work and left the rooms in order; also that he did not clean the mirror, that he "didn't have anything to do" with it and he did not recall seeing a mantel.

Children coming home from school about 3 P.M. and soon thereafter playing ball in the street saw the defendant on the street near the Goldberg house and saw Goldberg come home; they did not observe anyone else in the street near the house in the interval. Their opportunity for observation extended over a good part though not all of the time between the defendant's departure and Goldberg's return. A practical nurse employed in the house next to the Goldberg residence was watching the children in the street from about 3:25 P.M. until about 3:45 P.M. She saw no one around the Goldberg house other than the children. She saw Gloldberg come home.

The defendant spent the night of March 11-12 in the apartment of Mrs. Dorothy Hunt, in Cambridge, drinking with friends. When he arrived Mrs. Hunt observed that "he had had something to drink." She was then cooking supper; she has supper "between five and six." The defendant had most recently been with Mrs. Hunt in late October, 1962. On March 11 he brought liquor and beer with him and went out twice in the evening to buy more liquor. Later, at a time placed by one witness as between 12 midnight and 1 A.M., William Cartwright, one of the companions of the evening, drove the defendant, another man, and Mrs. Hunt to Boston in Cartwright's car intending to go to the defendant's house at 175 Northhampton Street. They did not stop at the house. In Northhampton Street the defendant directed Cartwright to "slow down" and then to "go faster, they are still here." Cartwright saw two men standing in front of the building that the defendant pointed out. Police officers were watching that building from

Page *606

11:30 P.M. on March 11, or midnight, to 5 or 5:30 A.M. on March 12. The defendant was with Mrs. Hunt on March 12, 1963, until arrested in the afternoon, going out with her and her daughter to an optometrist's and to a coffee shop in the morning.

The defendant told the police that he had $2 with him when he went to Belmont on March 11 and that he was paid $6.30 for his work at the Goldberg house. He had $3.20 with him when arrested. Goldberg had left bills (one in the amount of $10, five in the amount of $1) on the night table in the bedroom before leaving home in the morning, after having a conversation with his wife. This was for her use in paying the expected cleaning man. He had given his wife $7 on March 10 for some purchases; she had not spent it all. In the afternoon of March 11 her pocketbook was found open on top of a bureau with the wallet missing. The money was gone from the night table. The defendant on the evening of March 11 was seen with a ten, a five and some one dollar bills when he purchased whiskey. He made other purchases and expenditures between 3:05 P.M. on March 11 and the time of his arrest on March 12. The total of these was in the range of $15.

This evidence was sufficient to take the case to the jury. (FN 5) Commonwealth v. Richmond, 207 Mass. 240 , 243-245, 246-247. Commonwealth v. Smith, 342 Mass. 180 , 182-184. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 . Commonwealth v. Connors, 345 Mass. 102 . See Commonwealth v. Bonomi, 335 Mass. 327, 356, and cases cited. "Reasonable and possible" inferences were enough. Commonwealth v. Merrick, 255 Mass. 510 , 514. The jury could have found unusual opportunity, motive, possession after the crime of unexplained funds, incriminating action in leaving the house in disorder and the work unfinished, and subsequent conduct and false statements showing consciousness of guilt.

Evidence of consciousness of guilt, while not conclusive, may with other evidence be sufficient to prove guilt.
Commonwealth v. Curry, 341 Mass. 50, 55, and cases cited. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 , 713.
This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact.

I'll be available to answer questions at lemargold at yahoo

ricklibrarian said...

Junger does present most of what is stated in this comment. He admits that it is very possible that Smith did commit the murder, but in the end, he comes to a different conclusion.

Everyone in the story suffers. I feel sorry for them all.

Leah Goldberg said...

"The Perfect Muddle": Sebastian Junger's new book





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.