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Friday, April 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"A Death in Belmont": A presumption of guilt

Seattle Times book editor

"A Death in Belmont"
by Sebastian Junger
Norton, 266 pp., $23.95

The crimes chronicled in Sebastian Junger's new book unfold in the 1950s and early 1960s, an era of back-lit innocence for those who grew up before the country's social fabric was rent by the convulsions of the '60s.

But maybe not so innocent: "Presumed innocent" was a rule selectively applied to the accused; in many courts, the guilt of African Americans was assumed. And women willingly opened their doors to a stranger who said he needed to fix the plumbing. Minutes later, they were dead, raped and strangled. A stay-at-home mother could share a sandwich with a workman in her home, her trust in the order of things incapable of grasping the possibility that he might be the Boston Strangler.

In the early 1960s, Junger, author of the best-selling "The Perfect Storm," was an infant, cared for by his parents in the peaceful, modestly affluent Boston community of Belmont. His mother was that stay-at-home mom. In the book's only photo, an informal snap: his beautiful mother, baby Sebastian, a construction supervisor with a hammer in his pocket ... and a darkly handsome young workman named Albert DeSalvo. DeSalvo would ultimately confess to a string of macabre rape-strangulation murders, assuming his place in American crime history as the Boston Strangler.

"A Death in Belmont" hangs on such a murder. In spring 1963, as DeSalvo worked in the Junger home, Belmont resident Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled. "It's so scary," Junger's mother remembers telling DeSalvo. "I mean, here he is in Belmont, for God's sake!" DeSalvo later confessed to other gruesome killings — but not Bessie Goldberg's. An itinerant African-American worker named Roy Smith, hired to clean the Goldberg home that afternoon, was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence. Smith was sent away for life, in an era where defense attorneys were not even guaranteed pretrial discovery of the prosecution's evidence.

Author appearances

Sebastian Junger will read from "A Death in Belmont" at these locations:

• At 7 p.m. Friday, May 5, at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

• At 3 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

• At 5 p.m. Sunday, May 7, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

The memory of these events has haunted Junger, a diligent reporter with a fierce, understated style. He braids together the story of DeSalvo, his crimes and Smith's prosecution. More than any other character, "A Death in Belmont" is the story of Roy Smith — a man caught in that muddled place in the court system where tragedy, fallibility and prejudice intersect.

Smith and DeSalvo did have something in common: abuse.

Smith grew up in Oxford, Miss., in the days when blacks made a living by picking cotton, "an excellent way to die young, exhausted, and poor," Junger writes. After serving in World War II, Smith had a hard time readjusting to a nation that remained hostile to equal rights for blacks, and drifted into a life of alcoholism and petty crime.

The week in March 1950 when Roy Smith was convicted of burglary in Mississippi, the local paper "commented that justice had been served at the circuit court that week despite the fact that not a single jury had been convened and not a single witness had been put on the stand," Junger writes. " 'Just about every defendant pled guilty without a trial,' the newspaper gloated, 'and are now at Parchman serving their sentence.' " After serving time in Parchman, a notorious Mississippi prison farm, Smith drifted north.

DeSalvo's father had been a criminal who brought prostitutes to his family's apartment, knocked out most of his mother's teeth and regularly beat his offspring with a wide leather strap. Schooled in sadism, the young Albert shot cats with arrows for fun. "There is one common element to many serial killers ... ," Junger writes: "suffering." DeSalvo, middleweight Army boxing champion in Europe during World War II, took his strength and smarts into construction, with a sideline of breaking and entering. Then, according to his confessions, his rage boiled over. He began murdering women.

There are no heroes in "A Death in Belmont," and it makes for a gloomy, if compelling, book. It's undistinguished in its portrayal of the victims; even Bessie Goldberg is largely a cipher (Goldberg's daughter, Leah Goldberg Scheuerman, has disputed Junger's interpretation of the crime in online postings, but Junger stands by his reporting). Junger could take a page from local crime writer Ann Rule, who balances the victim's story with the killer's. It's particularly disturbing in that the deaths of the women are recounted in excruciating detail in DeSalvo's confessions.

But what "A Death in Belmont" does, with a subtle, disturbing force, is open a window on the workings of American justice.

Junger avoids drawing a bottom line — that Roy Smith was innocent, or that DeSalvo was really guilty.

But reading Smith's story, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the 10-to-1 rule (better 10 guilty men let go than one innocent man convicted), a foundation of our justice system, can easily be upended by chance, circumstance and human error.

"Between 1973 and 2000, more than one hundred people have been released from death row — over 3 percent of the current death-row population — because they were later proved to be innocent," Junger writes. Roy Smith died in 1976, protesting his innocence.

This spring, a study of the lives of American black men revealed that incarceration rates for black males are climbing. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20s with no college were in jail or prison. Nine years later, in 2004, 21 percent were behind bars, a historic high. That once-upon-a-time era portrayed in "A Death in Belmont"? Not so long ago, after all.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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