Editor’s Note: I suspended this blog eight months ago, for the usual personal reasons. Sometimes, it’s good to swing a hammer instead of a pen. I’ve been trying to find a way to start the blog up again. When writing about the justice system’s dealings with crime victims, the problem is that there are too many injustices to cover. And the media rarely acknowledges any of these injustices, except in condescending ways. They’ll mouth pieties about feeling sorry for victims, but, in reality, they are utterly disinterested in actually reporting the systematic ways the justice system fails the vast majority of people who have been on the receiving end of crimes, large and small.
They’re too fixated on empathizing with criminals to do that.
Most newspaper editors, along with the vast majority of criminologists and law professors, are unabashedly pro-offender in their outlook (there are many good crime beat reporters out there, but they rarely end up on the editorial pages). This powerful pro-offender, anti-incarceration bias warps academic research and opinion writing; it misinforms the public and paves the way for bad and deceptive sentencing policy.
The coverage of the Michael Woodmansee case is a good example of the consequences of such bias. We are now into the second week of coverage of this story, and the local paper, the Providence Journal, has not yet even bothered to clarify a central aspect of the story: what were the entire range of sentences available to the court when the parents of Michael Woodmansee’s victims were given the choice (and it wasn’t really their choice) to accept a plea bargain of fifty years, forty served, for the torture, murder, cannibalization, and desecration of the remains of their five-year old son?
So far, the emphasis has been on the reactions of the family and the public, rather than the law itself. Only one print news story has mentioned that there was not a Life Without Parole (LWOP) option that could be applied to Woodmansee’s case in 1983, for the murder he committed in 1975. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Rhode Island didn’t have a LWOP option in 1975. Their LWOP was passed in 1979. Nor did they (or do they) have the death penalty. Presumably, the LWOP law that was passed wasn’t retroactive. So in 1983, when Woodmansee confessed, the parents of his victims knew that they couldn’t expect him to stay in prison indefinitely. That surely would have affected their decision to accept a plea, as well as the types of pleas on the table.
But were they given the whole story? Was there anything stopping the prosecutor from demanding that the child cannibal serve 100 years, for example, so he wouldn’t be facing a good-time release in 2011, or parole even sooner? Could Woodmansee have been charged with attempted murder for his 1983 assault of another young boy, who survived? Did the state do everything it could have done? Why were his sentences for the two different assaults served concurrently? Why doesn’t anyone in the media ever question the law (or lack of it) behind concurrent sentencing for vicious serial sex crimes? What really happened, and who really is responsible, for the terrible possibility that Woodmansee will soon be released?
Well, according to the Providence Journal’s editorial columnist Bob Kerr, who cares? What’s really important to Kerr is making sure those pesky victims or the unwashed public don’t get out of hand, or some rival new source doesn’t get away with “exploiting” the story (of course, his newspaper is benefitting from their steroidally promoted coverage, but, hey, they’re print journalists: it’s classy when they do it). So although the Journal has had plenty of time to get around to clarifying sentencing laws, or having a real discussion about Rhode Island’s troubling history of lenience towards killers, Kerr has used his bully pulpit merely to berate the public and muddy the legal waters. In the latter task, he has gotten a big hand from one Andy Horwitz, a law professor/law school dean/President of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who gawkingly mused in print about LWOP as if it might have existed as an option in 1983, without actually explaining whether it did or did not.
It’s a disgraceful performance, but hardly an unusual one. Distract, accuse, and blame the victim. So thank you, Andy Horwitz and Bob Kerr, for reminding us precisely how much we need alternative sources for news about crime. And injustice, when victims are the ones on the receiving end, that is.
Suppressing Debate in the Michael Woodmansee Case
If their words are any reflection of their true thoughts, it is an article of belief among media pundits that wishing ill upon a murderer is roughly equivalent to, if not slightly more worrisome than, the murder itself. This weird arithmetic is currently playing out in Rhode Island, where the father of a five-year old murder victim made headlines by announcing that he will kill the man who killed his son if the state goes ahead with plans to release Michael Woodmansee from prison twelve years early, on the grounds of his “good behavior” behind bars.
In 1975, Woodmansee kidnapped 5-year old Jason Foreman and stabbed the child to death. He then watched from a close proximity (he was a neighbor) as Foreman’s anguished parents searched — for seven years — for their child. But that is not all he did. He cleaned and shellacked Jason’s skull and bones and stored them on his bedroom dresser, telling his father that they were theatrical props. He indulged himself by auditioning for and receiving the role of a murder suspect in a local production of an Agatha Christie play. He ambushed and attacked at least one other boy, who escaped, leading to his exposure for the earlier crime.
Despite everything Woodmansee has done, and despite the failure of the state to keep him locked up for life, some pundits see the current controversy as an indictment not of the system, but of those people who took to the streets to express outrage that a child killer would soon be living among them.
It is not enough for the public to simply accept such actions by the state, such thinking goes: they should accept them in silence, preferably while expressing gratitude that larger minds than theirs are attending to the administration of justice. Thus Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr scolded the protestors, telling them they should be listening to “thoughtful, reasoned legal voices” instead of allowing themselves to be dumbly led by a “master of ceremonies working the crowd.” Kerr’s example of such a “reasoned legal voice” was Andrew Horwitz, president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Horwitz, hardly an objective observer, used his moment in the spotlight to wax poetic about his love for the Constitution and his worry that public outrage would “twist and distort” the rule of law.
The next day, the Journal gave Andrew Horwitz an entire column to expand his critique of the protestors, while simultaneously announcing that public comments would be closed on Kerr’s piece because “an overwhelming number of readers were making inappropriate statements that violate our comments policy.”
Horwitz once again used his column inches to police other (non-killer) people’s speech. He took the paper’s editorial board to task for using merely “lukewarm language,” (rather than red-hot language) to condemn the protestors, and then he criticized the state’s Attorney General for failing to criticize the protestors, as if doing so was some sort of requirement of the job. “A true leader would explain to the public that following the law can sometimes be painful and difficult, but must always be the path that we take as a society of laws,” the defense attorney snapped. And do it loudly and angrily enough to satisfy the criminal bar, of course.
And then, Horwitz jumped the metaphorical shark. He compared protestors’ demands that the state reconsider its generous “good-time” rules — astonishingly — to a “school that decides to permanently cancel a successful annual activity because one child misbehaves on one occasion.”
Comparing the early release of a child killer to a “child misbehav[ing] on one occasion” is hardly “thoughtful” speech. But that is not the most troubling aspect of Horwitz’ op-ed. What is most troubling is his use of the “vengeance card” — arguing that public opinion (ie. voters) ought not be trusted in future legislative decisions regarding sentencing because the public will brazenly base their opinions on their angry feelings about this one case.
Well, so what if they do? It was public opinion, in 1979, that led Rhode Island lawmakers to institute a life-without-parole option. Public outrage at lenient sentencing also helped reform Rhode Island law after serial killer Craig Price received a sentence of only five years in a “training school” for committing four extremely brutal murders, including the killing of a mother and her ten- and eight-year-old daughters in 1989. Because Price was a few weeks shy of 16 when he committed his last three murders, he could only be “rehabilitated” and then released at age 21, with the additional injustice of a clean juvenile record.
Craig Price eventually served more time because the state actually bothered to try him for crimes he committed at the training school and later in adult prisons. But the defense bar has never stopped trying to free him from prison. Why? Because he’s in prison, of course, though that may change if criminal defense lobbyists ever get their way. The movement to entirely eliminate life sentences for teen killers again — even serial killers — is well underway.
Rebecca Spencer, Stabbed 58 Times by Craig Price
Joan, Jennifer and Melissa Heaton, Stabbed to Death by Craig Price
Five years for four murders, or twelve years off the already-truncated sentence of a child-killer: is it any wonder that the criminal defense bar, and their watchdogs in the media, do not want the public to weigh in on all the extraordinary leniencies they have so carefully woven into our laws? And so they tar public opinion with a broad brush, accusing non-defense attorneys and non-editors of being too “vengeful” to listen to reason. They claim “reason” as the exclusive provenance of those who would punish a quadruple murderer with a short stint in reform school and a clean criminal record at the end of it.
They’ll do anything to silence victims’ voices — and they get away with it.
When I was blogging last year, I posted a letter from the relative of a murder victim: she wanted merely to say that she hated the man who had taken her sister’s life and to describe the pain of the mourners and the eulogy at the woman’s funeral. A week later, the woman wrote to me again, telling me that the prosecutor in the case was worried that her words might be used in some way by the defense team, and so I removed her letter from my blog. She had been told, as victims are frequently told, to avoid making any public comment about the offender, lest the words magically provide a cause for appeal in our absurdly pro-offender appeals system. And so she silenced herself out of fear that she might topple the delicate act of putting a murderer away for life, an act that may be toppled in a thousand frivolous ways. Meanwhile, the defense is perfectly free to say anything it wishes, in the media and in the courtroom, with few consequences for boldly lying, or uttering the most hateful libel directed at deceased and living victims of a crime.
This inequity is, of course, enshrined as a virtue of the system by the criminal defense bar and their admirers. It is one of the many ways the criminal justice system imposes intense pressure on, even terrorizes, the surviving loved ones of murder victims. And I’ve never heard a preening newspaper pundit or bloviating civil liberties lawyer utter one peep about such grotesque violations of certain people’s free speech rights.
Jason Foreman disappeared in 1975, but Michael Woodmansee was not caught until 1982 when he attempted to kidnap another child from the same neighborhood. Dale Sherman was a 14-year old delivering newspapers when Woodmansee lured him into his house, gave him something to drink that made the boy pass out, and tried to strangle him. Sherman escaped, and the police discovered 5-year old Jason Foreman’s bones and a journal that reportedly detailed sexual torture and cannibalism committed on the child victim. The journal was sealed by the court when Woodmansee cut a deal to plead guilty to the crimes against both boys in exchange for serving forty-years of a fifty-year sentence.
The deal let Jason Foreman’s parents bury their child right away, rather than enduring the brutality of a trial and a long delay before the court could release the child’s bones. By “brutality” I mean the public revelation of what Woodmansee did to Jason Foreman, and also the circus that defense attorneys make of high-profile murder trials where guilt is not in doubt. The victim in such trials becomes a mere prop in an extended drama detailing the killer’s woes in the hope of mitigating his punishment: the murderer’s childhood sufferings are spun out, along with his purportedly inadequate IQ, his failure to adjust to school, or to find friends. All the while, the parents and siblings of the victim must sit by and remember that even a fraction of these allegedly dreadful experiences — or a lifetime behind bars — would be a far more generous portion of life than they could ever anticipate for their loved ones.
In 1983, it made sense for the Foremans to accept the prosecutor’s decision to forego such a trial. Their son’s bones had already served as a prop in the killer’s bedroom for seven long years. “He ate the flesh of my son . . . before he cleaned the bones,” John Foreman told a local radio talk show host, referring to details given to him by authorities.
From the lofty perch afforded him by the Providence Journal, Andrew Horwitz scolded: “Woodmansee entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to serve a term of 40 years.. . . All of the participants understood that with “good time” he would be released some time well before that date.” How dare the father of a dead child show anger at his son’s killer.
Rather than attacking John Foreman, perhaps some of the “reasoned, legal voices” in Providence could discuss the law, instead:
- Why did the prosecutor settle for a sentence that would see Michael Woodmansee back on the streets again? She did say there would have been no plea had there been the possibility of LWOP, but weren’t there other options?
- Are there other killers waiting to benefit from Rhode Island’s historically lenient sentencing rules?
- Is the public really being irrational in their demand that murderers be excluded from “good time” reductions of time served?
- Why have there only been a handful of life-without-parole sentences handed down in Rhode Island since “LWOP” was instituted, a mere 27 between 1979 and 2008, out of 700+ murders?
- How do Rhode Island judges, not to mention the defense bar, thus justify a 3% rate of life sentences without parole as the outcome of murder in their state (yes, of course, some of these crimes go unsolved)?
Don’t expect to find the answer to such real questions from Horwitz or any of the other experts weighing in from the defense side in the Michael Woodmansee case. They’re too busy chastising the survivors. But here is one more question for Horwitz and his media peers, one they ought to answer directly:
Do you really call this justice?
For more information about the movement to roll back life sentences for killers under 19, and excellent analysis of the ways the media and activists misrepresent these cases, see NOVJL, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.