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The “Benjy Brigade,” Part 2: After the DNA

(this is part 2)

On March 23, 2003, DNA specialist Edward Blake announced that the semen taken from the victim’s public hair was, indeed, Benjamin LaGuer’s. The victim had not been lying, and she was not a racist monster. The things that had been written about her and spoken about her in the halls of Harvard Law and judge’s chambers throughout the city were false. Benjamin LaGuer was the racist, and a sadistic rapist and attempted murderer, as well. After the shock subsided, Boston’s elite went into mourning. Several journalists wrote weepy paeans to their own good intentions. “I put the covers over my head, and for the next six hours, I just couldn’t get out of bed,” said reporter John Strahinich, whose thoughts under the covers apparently did not stray to retracting the bile he had directed at the frail victim of his jailhouse pal.

The Boston media had finally found a victim they could believe in: themselves.

Yet even the very public unraveling of their unprofessional alliance with LaGuer failed to move them to go back and correct the record. Most simply abandoned the story, retreating into a cowardly silence, refusing to comment further on a case they had obsessively scribbled on for years. Only Dianne Williamson of the Worchester Telegram & Gazette actually apologized to the victim in print.

This behavior, however, was hardly the worst exhibited in the wake of the DNA results. Boston University president John Silber came out and reiterated his belief that “Benjy” should be released, even though he was guilty, even though he still refused to take responsibility for the crime, and even though he had recently managed to harass the victim on her deathbed by posing as a priest on the phone from prison (with his lawyer’s help? with a journalist’s help?) and then “absolving” her when he was tapped through to her hospital room, making his voice one of the last voices she heard and re-traumatizing her family.

“I think he’s a fine person,” Silber told the press.

What could possibly underlie this degree of cognitive disconnection, short of poisonous hatred for the victim of the crime? Only by despising her could you look at the violation of her body, the twenty-year public excoriation of her, and the violation of her deathbed, and see in her tormentor “a fine person.”

This was Boston: a city ironically weaned on literary tales of the danger of scapegoating “witches” had created, and destroyed, another one.

As journalists mourned in uncharacteristic silence, politically savvy supporters of LaGuer scrambled for cover. Intent on winning the governor’s mansion, Deval Patrick attempted to play down his long association with LaGuer, getting caught in serious lies in the process.

But John Silber, Noam Chomsky, and William Styron continued to support LaGuer’s release. Silber told the press that he believed LaGuer had come to believe his own lies about not having committed the crime, so — technically — LaGuer was not lying when he continued to claim his innocence. “I think he can be quite sincere in saying he didn’t do it,” Silber said, “I still think that’s a psychological misconception on his part . . . I think he’s a perfectly good example of a screwed-up kid who was on drugs and making every mistake you can imagine.”

Silber went on to explain that, for Benjy, having to admit guilt in order to be freed when he did not actually believe he was guilty because he had convinced himself he was not was a “Catch-22.” Consequently, LaGuer should be freed even though he was both guilty and refused to admit guilt, Silber explained at a parole hearing a year after the DNA results confirmed LaGuer’s guilt.

Here is a picture of John Silber’s book:

As I watched John Silber and all the judges and professors and lawyers and writers rally around Benjamin LaGuer, I wondered what it must have felt like to be a rape victim attending Boston University or Harvard or Harvard Law School at that time, knowing that the president of B.U. and other authority figures on those campuses were doing their utmost to smear the reputation of another victim of rape and free her assailant. What would it be like to get up in the morning and go to class and actually work for your degree (not to mention pay for it), while Benjamin LaGuer got showered with literary awards and honorary degrees — because, let’s be blunt here, he was a rapist who cried racism?

What would it be like to walk into a classroom knowing that your professor was spending his free time preening for the cameras on behalf of a man who bound a frail, elderly woman, beat her senseless, sexually violated her, broke her cheekbones, tried to kill her, and then cajoled others to treat her like a monster?

I don’t think I could have taken it. I think I would have left that place.

I wonder if there were victims who did leave, knowing full well that to speak out on behalf of the victim would be to be labeled by extremely powerful people — labeled a racist, a hate-monger, and a woman who lies about rape.

12 Responses to The “Benjy Brigade,” Part 2: After the DNA

  1. JP says:

    What’s particularly chilling here is that I’ve met both Dr. Kobilinsky & Hartl way back when. Both are well qualified & highly respected experts in the field of forensics (LK) & genetics (DH). Hartl is probably not the forensic expert Kobilinsky is, but according to the Wiki, they still wanted to question the DNA test. I’d be astonished to know how such a sample might have been contaminated so as to implicate LaGuer. After so much time, it’s not unusual for there to be a more faint ‘signal’ against a ‘noisy’ background, but this is mostly a ‘presence’ or absence test. If he was not there, the DNA should not be there. No satellites thereof either. I suspect (I’m unaware of the nature of the tests), that the methodology had improved substantially since the sample was obtained, and even given the degradation of same, it was enough to ‘prove out’. Expecting apologies from the media however is a forlorn prospect. We’d sooner get deathbed conversions from the guilty convicts. The phone call afterwards from prison would have done it for me however. That was as much an admission of guilt as anything else.

    But once upon a time old one armed Silber would have described his own moral reasoning here as akin to a moral monster. Indeed. I just missed all this idiocy @ BU evidently. Thanks for the reminder. JP

  2. Tina says:

    There are always going to be people who believe that guilt never can be proven, and I’m not surprised that some continue to dispute the DNA. It’s important to remember that LaGuer was convicted on other evidence, even before the DNA test, and that the man chosen to perform the test is an expert who works closely with the Innocence Project whose conclusions are never questioned when he finds men innocent. But this fantasy that LaGuer is an innocent man has taken on a life of its own on the internet, where exaggerations and sheer misrepresentation of the court and appeals record are routine, much like in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal.

    No amount of reasoning will overcome this type of emotional conviction that the system is oppressive to people like LaGuer and Jamal. But people who indulge in such fantasies need to be held accountable for the very specific harm that they do to the victims of these men. Silber, Noam Chomsky, and their friends visited an horrific, decade-long assault on LaGuer’s victim from positions of great authority, and then they strolled away from it with no consequences when their positions became uncomfortably exposed as false — this despite their vaunted public reputations as ethically serious men and spokespeople for “justice.” That is grotesque, and they should be held accountable.

  3. JP says:

    Here’s another short on the rape kits issues rerun:

    http://health.usnews.com/blogs/on-health-and-money/2008/02/21/rape-victims-can-be-hurt-financially-too.html

    Further checking reveals that evidently Kobilinsky has had consistent issues & criticisms of the specific DNA test on sperm used, and for the reasons I suspected, (amplification). Again I’m frankly mystified. But the defense agreed to the test & the conditions, and were evidently surprised to be ‘found out’. But it is a strange sort of innocence industry, and it’s been with us for ages too. We want to believe in the innocence of the damned, because I guess it makes us (at least some of us) feel better on a certain level.

    It’s a complicated ball of wax as you might well suspect. I think some of it comes down to a clear lack of experience beyond the ivory tower walls or the otherwise staid role of legal argument & judges. But even that may not cut it. You’re obviously seeing this parade of deviancy before you day in & out, and yet you deign to pick out a few often spectacular miscreants for your favor and to proclaim them innocent/redeemed/reformed etc., and often based on the flimsiest sort of premises. Again, more poor handling of evidence & criminal history damning yes, ever more innocents to hellish victimization.

    Me, I kinda doubt Silber has ever been friendly with Chomsky, and would often openly mock the man in lectures. Strange that such madness ‘brought them together’, if nothing more than rhetorically for the wrong cause.

    I imagine the clear answer here is to bleed your attacker at the crime scene when & where one can. Seemed to work for the most recent Atlanta capture of one of the suspects for the murder of John Henderson, the Standard bartender/server. Two more are being sought.

    http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/freshloaf/2009/05/08/standard-murder-one-suspect-in-custody-three-more-to-go/

    Again w/o the proper handling & role of evidence, and it’s timely analysis, we’re not doing proper justice to or for anyone. That’s one crusade that’s yet to see it’s full fruition either. Good Luck & thanks for the notes, JP, ga.

  4. I just discovered this case while doing research for a thriller I am writing. (I do not write “direct from life” but I do draw ideas here and there from real cases.

    I found one website that claimed that the DNA tested as the crime scene sample includes DNA not only from rectal and vaginal swabs of the victim but also from hairs from a shirt taken from the victims home and falsely labeled as coming from the crime scene. I do not know who is right here as I am new to this case, but I was wondering if you could shed any light on this claim.

  5. Correction to my earlier comment. “Victims home” should have been “suspect’s home” (as he then was). I hope this slip-up wasn’t Freudian.

  6. Tina says:

    David Kessler: Freudian? Try uninformed. You’re “new to the case”? Don’t lose any sleep. Every rock has been overturned. Every claim has been processed, at endless public cost, to try to substantiate LaGuer’s serially discounted allegations. And he is still in prison.

    I doubt the vague enthusiasm of an amateur novelist piddling about the internet will shed any new light on the case. And I find it grotesque that you would deny the victimization of the real victim by making a snide remark painting LaGuer in her place. That woman was tortured and dehumanized, first by a rapist, then by an entire city of well-placed “hobbyists” like you. How dare you deny her suffering. How dare you.

  7. My slip between victim and suspect was genuine not a “snide remark.” Whilst I realize it reflects poorly on me, I would point out that people often make mistakes when typing quickly – and typing “victim” for “suspect” (and vice versa) is actually quite a common mistake.

    Perhaps my facetious quip about it being Freudian was ill-considered, but your own intemperate reaction is somewhat over the top. My interest in real cases is not to solve them but to get the creative juices flowing. The only real case I wrote about was the British case of Colin Stagg – whose innocence has finally been realized now that DNA evidence has established that Robert Napper murdered Rachel Nickell.

    I’m also not sure why you say “amateur” given that I’ve had four thrillers published by Hodder and have recently signed a three book deal with HarperCollins.

    I actually share your concern for the rights of crime victims and have criticized British courts for their leniency. But as I had discovered a contentious case and read arguments on both sides, I was interested in your response. I actually discovered (by chance) the site defending LaGuer first and then sought other sources, including your own.

    I do not seek to shed light on the case myself. Rather I was wondering if your response to the allegations of evidence contamination and withholding of exculpatory evidence was that the allegations have been proven false or that they are irrelevant.

  8. Tina says:

    Fair enough, that I sounded intemperate. I am of unambiguously bad temper about this case. The victim was brutally tormented by many of Boston’s most powerful citizens, who were immoral and crude enough to refuse to apologize — which is the subject of my post.

    My other subject is the relentless and presumptuous search for exculpatory evidence in the face of overwhelming evidence against convicts — a social and political activity (yes, a hobby) that obscures the realities of the American justice system, which is far too lenient on violent offenders and offers far too many technical loopholes for escaping punishment.

    Scratch the surface of the Innocence Project’s cases and you will find that many of their clients are not as innocent as the media so earnestly trumpets — additionally, many are serial rapists popped for the wrong crime, not victims of anything much beyond their own criminal torment of others.

    Also, it is difficult to write about crime victimization without exploiting victims of crime. I can’t go down the road of exploring such cases in order to “get the creative juices flowing.” Rather, I worry constantly that I am exploiting people by discussing their experiences, even with a sympathetic eye, even advocating for them.

    I think the most toxic force in American criminal law is the industry of outright lies, fake statistics, and misrepresentations of cause that have grown up around allegations of wrongful conviction. “Innocence imprisoned” has become a fetish, one that endangers countless innocent lives as it eats away at the efficacy of our courts. And outrage on behalf of murderers and rapists, I notice, rarely gets challenged as intemperate.

    Victims deserve the occasional choleric in their corner. Sorry, though, that I snapped at you.

  9. David Kessler says:

    We have it even bad in England too. Not only is it very hard to secure a conviction but even when the criminals are finally caught and convicted, our criminal-friendly judges let the bastards off with the kind of sentences that are like spitting on the victims (or in some cases, the graves of the victims).

    The latest outrage is the case of “Baby Peter” and related cases. The baby was killed by its mother, her boyfriend and a lodger. But then there was another case in which it was revealed that the mothers boyfriend had also repeatedly raped a two year old girl! He denied it and consequently the girl (now four) had to testify. She did so and was subjected to a half hour cross-examination.

    He was found guilty, but get this, though given a “life” sentence, it had a “tariff” of 10 years. This means he will eligible for parole after 10 years. For the Baby Peter murder was given life with a 12 year tariff to run concurrently with the rape sentence. This means that a man who murdered a baby and raped a two year old could be out of prison in 12 years!

    And the bastard is planning to appeal on the grounds that his victim was too young to testify.

  10. Tina says:

    There is a very similar case in Tampa right now — boyfriend had a record of violence the length of your arm, and threw the infant out of the car onto a highway in a rage at the mother. Social workers, mandated to try to “preserve the family,” were doing constant visits and such but even after he beat the mother, there was no system that prioritized getting the young woman and baby out of harm’s way.

    The question nobody is asking is why he wasn’t in prison for his crimes.

    I have a chapter on the LaGuer case on _Forgetting Rape: Sexual Violence and Social Justice_, which is on my homepage in pdf form, but I do not go into the appeals in detail. The Worchester Telegram and Gazette is whom I would contact for leads in that direction — and there are specific journalists listed in my footnotes. The Gazette’s coverage of the case was somewhat critical of the Globe, which behaved shamefully.

    Yes, the British system has been barreling southward, and I expect the EU to exacerbate that. You’ve already lost your DNA database, previously the best in the world. It’s chilling — the last thing anybody should do is try to make their criminal justice system any more like the U.N. — or America’s, let alone both.

  11. David Kessler says:

    We haven’t actually lost the DNA database. The only thing the court ruled is that DNA taken from arrested people who were found not guilty (or never charged) could be retained permanently. However, the government has responded by saying that they will be retained for 12 years, which technically complies with the ruling because it isn’t permanent. The case may go back to court, but it’ll take time.

    (I must say, however, that keeping DNA on people who have been arrested but convicted of anything is not necessarily the way to go. If they want a database of everyone, they should introduce via the front door not the back.)

    The EU is certainly a big problem. Their so-called Court of Human Rights held that a name-and-shame policy by a borough council (local government) of putting up posters of convicted criminals who had served their sentences but had a record or recidivism, was an infringement of their “human rights.”

    I hope that in the case in Tampa, they now lock him up for life and don’t repeat the earlier mistakes

  12. David Kessler says:

    Sorry, another typo: “could be retained” should be “could not be retained.”

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