Crime and Punishment

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, “Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College.” He has published dozens of journal and magazine articles, and hundreds of freelance columns in newspapers around the country, primarily in the areas of multiple murder, youth crime, school and campus violence, workplace violence, and capital punishment.

Fox often gives keynote talks and testimony before Congress and in court. He has briefed various leaders here and abroad, including President Clinton, Attorney General Reno and Princess Anne of Great Britain. He has worked on criminal investigations surrounding serial and mass murder cases and served as a visiting fellow with the Bureau of Justice Statistics focusing on homicide patterns and trends. Finally, Fox was honored in 2007 by the Massachusetts Committee against the Death Penalty with the Hugo Adam Bedau Award for excellence in capital punishment scholarship and by Northeastern University with the 2008 Klein Lectureship.

The Chilliest of Cold Cases

“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.”

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Tip of the (salary) cap to the Pats

“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.”

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Dead woman walking free…not quite

““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.”

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Chicken Little and Boston Murders

“”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.”

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Depp not right for Bulger role

“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.”

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The Next Target of Terror?

“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.”

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Boston Strong and Boston Wrong

“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.”

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A deadly brotherly bond

“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.”

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Enough blast videos!

“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.”

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Newtown victim #27 and the Boston Marathon

“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.”

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Gun rights, gun control and mass murder

“If one thing is absolutely predictable about mass shootings, it is that they will spark debate over gun control. In the wake of massacres in Newton, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and elsewhere, public officials and private citizens alike are insisting that we must find a way to keep guns away from our most dangerous element, yet are blinded by passion and anger from confronting the practical limitations.

Most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization. They would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally.”

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Zero tolerance makes zero sense

“The suspension of a 5-year-old Hopkinton kindergartener for bringing his souvenir toy gun to school may seem like an utterly absurd over-response. Actually, it is the latest in long list of mindless applications of the zero tolerance school policy to relatively innocuous behaviors.

Just weeks ago, a 7-year-old Maryland boy was suspended after he nibbled away at his breakfast pastry until it was left shaped like a gun. A Colorado girl, who mistakenly grabbed her mother’s lunch bag from the kitchen counter while rushing off to school, was punished after she learned of her error and volunteered the small paring knife that her mother had packed for slicing an apple. Ignorance was no excuse.

Patterned after a controversial policing strategy that emerged in the 1990s for dealing with issues of public disorder, the zero tolerance response to school disciplinary matters became the rule of law in countless school districts across the country in response to heightened concerns over schoolyard terrorism. Hoping to send a stern message, school administrators alerted students that infractions involving weapons or the threat of serious harm would result in suspension or expulsion, no matter what the mitigating circumstances.

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Teachers packing heat

“Have you ever noticed that people who witness and survive mass shootings often describe the gunmen as having been extremely relaxed and calm during their rampage? This level of composure stems from the detailed planning that is typical of these massacres — planning that includes where and when to attack as well as with what weapons. Strategizing prepares them logistically and psychologically for “warfare.”

In contrast, the rest of us are taken by surprise and respond frantically. A sudden and wild shootout involving the assailant and citizens armed with concealed weapons would potentially catch countless innocent victims in the crossfire.

The effectiveness of concealed-carry laws in deterring mass murder is actually an empirical question, one that has been examined by criminologist Grant Duwe and his colleagues. Using fairly sophisticated analytic techniques, they assessed the extent to which various “right-to-carry” laws in 25 states across the country were associated with any change in the incidence of public mass shootings in the years from 1977 through 1999. Based on their estimates, the impact of these laws was negligible, neither encouraging nor discouraging mass murder.

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Fujita: Right verdict, wrong outcome

“It comes as no surprise that Nathaniel Fujita has been found guilty of murdering Lauren Astley. The physical evidence was overwhelming and, besides, the defense never contested that the young man had killed his former girlfriend.

The defendant’s only available strategy was to attempt the insanity defense, a defense that had almost no chance of succeeding. Not only are successful insanity claims exceptionally rare — particularly in high-profile murder cases like this one, but the lack of prior and persistent psychiatric history was no small hurdle to overcome. Most successful insanity claims come through a plea agreement between the prosecution and the defense, and there would be no such arrangement possible in this closely watched case.

Many people with whom I’ve discussed this trial expressed a certain degree of sympathy for Fujita (although, of course, not anywhere as profound as the sentiment for Astley’s family). After all, who has not experienced the devastation of lost love? And when you’re young, it can feel absolutely catastrophic. I heard from many folks who hoped that the pursuit of justice for Astley could be tempered with compassion for Fujita.

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Clear sight on gun crimes

“Today’s front page story from Brian MacQuarrie about trends in gun crime in Massachusetts raises some important questions about the efficacy of gun control. Indeed, how can a state, like Massachusetts, witness such a disturbing surge in gun homicide and other firearms-related crimes after enacting one of the nation’s strictest gun control packages? On the other hand, if the situation has grown so dire, how is it that the Commonwealth can still lay claim to having the second lowest gun fatality rate in the nation? The answers to these (and perhaps other) questions come from taking a broader view of the relevant statistics.

Based on the FBI data shown below, it is quite true that homicides with a firearm have nearly doubled since the 1998 gun control package. What makes the increase even more striking is that the volume of homicides involving all other weapons remained fairly level over these same years.

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Back to school fears

“With the holiday break ending, millions of youngsters will be returning to the classroom. Will they do so fearful that an incident like the Sandy Hook shooting might happen in their school? Will parents worry as they watch their children climb aboard the yellow school bus that they might not return safe and sound at the end of the day?

The recent massacre in Newtown, Conn. has put the issue of school safety center stage in the public and political discourse. Notwithstanding the fact that for school-aged children, the risk of serious violence while at school is significantly lower than at other times and at other places, the enormity of the carnage at the Sandy Hook compels us to think long and hard about school security.

This is not the first time that Americans have been forced by tragedy to confront the issue. The string of school shootings that marked the late 1990s — no less than seven multiple-victim shootings including Columbine — changed the face of public education, and had many Americans questioning their faith in the notion that schools were safe places for children to grow intellectually and socially.

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Life without parole: Right for some, wrong for others

“It has been nearly two years since 24-year-old Jared Lee Loughner opened fire upon a crowded plaza in Tucson, killing six and wounding several others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Yet, after all the legal maneuvering, Loughner received sentence that guarantees he will never again walk free.

Mass murderers like Loughner or Winchester’s Thomas Mortimer deserve nothing less than life imprisonment given the enormity of their crimes. While absolutely fair and appropriate for such atrocities, there are many other offenders, particularly here in Massachusetts, who receive the very same fate but who arguably deserve something less extreme.

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The victim of crime trend

“Violent crimes jump unexpectedly,” read the headline of a Page 2 news brief in today’sBoston Globe. The attention-grabber sounds as scary as it is wrong — wrong on two counts. Not only is it rather misleading to call the latest trend in violent crime victimization a jump, but the increase that did occur was hardly surprising.

The following chart showing the rate of violent crime over the past two decades based on the annual survey of tens of thousands of households nationwide places the statistical report in the proper context. Sure, violent crime was up in 2011 over 2010, but it remained lower than every other year since the early 1990s. The rate of violent crime victimization in 2011 was actually the second best in recent history; but with 2010 being the best, the one year trend from 2010 to 2011 appeared worrisome – an 18 percent surge in violent crime.

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Lessons from crime lab scandal

The third time will be anything but a charm for a 48-year-old Texas inmate who will return to the state’s execution chamber after twice before coming within hours of getting the needle. Cleve Foster, a former army recruiter who was convicted a decade ago of murdering a Ft. Worth woman, will repeat today a bizarre death ritual that has become all too familiar.

One again, Foster will be escorted by van the hour-long trip from his prison cell in West Livingston to the lethal injection chamber in Huntsville. Once again he will sit in silent solitude awaiting his fate and praying that the U.S. Supreme Court will intercede as it had twice before. Once again he will be served a last meal, whether or not justice will be served afterwards. Only this time, Foster will not have his choice of menu, as this long-practice gesture of mercy was banned last year by order of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

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Romney’s good failure

On stage in front of thousands of delighted delegates to the DNC in Charlotte, Governor Deval Patrick detailed the many ways in which his predecessor in the corner office on Beacon Hill failed the citizens of Massachusetts. And there was much to Governor Mitt Romney’s record for Patrick to work with.

Never mind Mitt Romney’s outrageous attempts to abuse the Commonwealth as the butt of his anti-liberal barbs, even while still holding the state’s highest elective office, as he toured the country garnering momentum for his eventual run for the Presidency. According to Patrick, Mitt Romney left the Commonwealth in worse shape than when he assumed the leadership post four years earlier. Not only did Romney raise fees and cut education, but Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation during his term as Governor.

There is, however, one failure to Romney’s administration — and a significant one according to his own assessment — for which we in Massachusetts have benefited, at least financially. And that is Romney’s unsuccessful bid to restore capital punishment in Massachusetts.

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Where were you during the Boston Strangler case?

For many of us baby boomers and our surviving parents, AMC’s Mad Men has served to refresh lots of memories, some pleasant and others painful, about the early 1960s … where we were and what we were doing at the time.

Today’s 50th anniversary of the first Boston Strangler attack, when 55-year-old Anna Slesers was found molested and murdered inside her 3rd floor apartment at 77 Gainsborough St., should bring back, for those of us who were living here then, some distressing recollections of the panic that enveloped the city and the suburbs for years to come.

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Crime is down — or is it?

There is good news on the national crime front…or so it seems at first glance.

As is usual practice, the FBI released today its preliminary tabulations of crime statistics for 2011, and the short-term trend seems rather encouraging. Although the final figures will not be available until the Fall, the incidence of serious violent and property crime continues its downward slide.

According to the FBI analysis (see figure below), violent crime was down 6.4% in 2011 over 2010, including a 1.9% decline in murder. The homicide drop would mean that nearly 280 fewer Americans were murdered last year as compared to the year before. A homicide death toll of about 14,500 would be the lowest since Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States.

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Violins (not violence) in schools

The positive impact of the “Play Ball” initiative on the scholastic performance of youngsters in Boston’s middle schools (see Globe story) is stunning, but hardly surprising. For too many years, we have over-emphasized standardized test scores — treating them as the gold standard, if not the only standard, for assessing quality in education — at the expense of other areas of physical, emotional and intellectual development.

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The Unabomber — Still infamous after all these years

Let me see a show of hands. How many of you were amused, even momentarily, by Theodore Kaczynski’s playful responses in Harvard’s published survey of alumni accomplishments? Now, how many of you instead were, like the Boston Globe‘s editorial board, outraged over Harvard’s apparent insensitivity toward the Unabomber’s victims and their families?
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Fatal flaws in biolab report

“If you build it, they will come,” a much overused expression for just about any kind of venture, originally referred to a “Field of Dreams” ballpark in an isolated Iowa cornfield that would attract the unsettled spirits of disgraced ballplayers. In the case of the Boston University Biosafety Lab on Albany Street, which has stood for several years awaiting resolution of a controversial risk assessment, it is more like “If you open it, they may come.”
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Are police fatalities on the rise?

Thursday night’s deadly shoot-out in Greenland, N.H., occurring on the same day as a fatal stand-off in Modesto, Calif., has some observers around the country wondering if the job of a police officer is perhaps getting appreciably more dangerous. And, oddly enough, a storyin last Monday’s New York Times, under the ominous headline “Even as Violent Crime Falls, Killing of Officers Rises,” would seem to confirm the impression:
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Altered meaning of Zimmerman’s 911 call

Where is the outrage? More to the point, where is the news coverage?

You may have missed it. Actually, unless you were searching for it (or are a frequent viewer of Sean Hannity’s show), you probably did.

It seems that a version of the 911 tape that we all heard over and over again of George Zimmerman calling the cops to report suspicious behavior by 17-year-old Trayvon Martin just before fatally shooting the boy was like something out of the Nixon White House — edited. Sure, we all heard it with our own ears, but it is what we didn’t hear that’s key to understanding the confrontation between the neighborhood watchman and the Skittles-toting youngster.
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