How the Willie Horton Case Changed American Justice

By David C. Anderson

Times Books.291 pp. $25

WHAT DOES the Willie Horton case tell us about American criminal justice and politics? David C. Anderson, who has written editorials on crime and punishment for the New York Times, thinks it can teach us a lot more than that racism and Republican demagoguery fueled hysteria in the 1988 presidential campaign. His Horton saga is also a cautionary tale about the danger of enraged citizens, sensationalist media and craven politicians creating a justice system that favors retribution over rehabilitation.

Anderson means to discredit what he calls an "expressive justice" that would "lock 'em up and throw away the key" or "fry 'em" in response to violent crimes like Horton's against innocent, white middle-class victims. He reminds us that such violence more often visits poor blacks, and that mindless retribution only hardens its perpetrators behind bars, increasing recidivism when they're released and squandering resources that might educate and divert youngsters from crime.

These arguments aren't new; what's surprising is how poorly they're sustained by Anderson's own account of the Horton case. Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis emerges as a cold, if brave, defender of the furlough system that let Horton escape. Anderson portrays Horton as less monstrous than some think, yet others may find Horton all the more enraging for that; he's too well-spoken to have been denied an education by deep poverty, and he got decent jobs he didn't keep.

Anderson also downplays an alternative to mindless retribution and facile, bureaucratic "rehabilitation" -- an alternative that's struggling to emerge from his otherwise scrupulous narrative: Many of the angry citizens he cites would let the system serve up something better than vengeance if it enforced a moral contract involving more than prison "risk management," which releases criminals almost casually because of fiscal pressure and in deference to overly optimistic social scientists and inmates'-rights advocates.

The story is certainly about more than demagoguery or racism: It was Sen. Al Gore, in a 1988 Democratic presidential-primary debate, who alerted George Bush's campaign to Dukakis's defense of the furlough program that had released Horton, a convicted murderer sentenced in 1975 to life without parole. Horton's "sponsors" had been kept ignorant of his record. He'd fled Massachusetts in 1986 with money stolen or made from dealing drugs in prison; in 1987 he'd assaulted, bound and tormented a couple in their Oxon Hill, Md., home, raping the woman.

Maryland convicted and sentenced him (he's now serving life there) months before Gore charged that Dukakis had bungled the furlough program. Massachusetts politics were convulsed for months, too, as local media pilloried Dukakis and thousands petitioned and testified against furloughs. This was little noted elsewhere until Gore mentioned it in the debate. Two weeks later, Dukakis quietly signed a law tightening furloughs and eliminating them for lifers.

Anderson wishes he hadn't. "The furlough policy that led to Horton's escape actually did make sense," he writes. This view deserves a hearing, yet he spends far more time on the politics of hysteria than he does arguing that furloughs can reduce recidivism by easing inmates back into society and can improve prison life as rewards for good behavior. He certainly doesn't explain why anyone sentenced to life without parole, as Horton was at 23, should 10 years later be out on furloughs that are, in reality, unsupervised.

Instead, like a defense attorney, Anderson obsesses about false claims that prison corruption prompted Horton's release and that he'd mutilated the man for whose murder he was convicted with two others in 1975. These oft-repeated falsehoods do tell us about demagoguery in and out of the GOP, but they don't entirely discredit anger over Horton's release. The scandal wasn't that prison officials were corrupt; it was that they followed the system's own, unpublicized rules in releasing people sentenced to life without parole.

Horton was in bad company at the 1975 murder scene, but he may not have been the actual knife wielder. He was convicted, with two others, as a felony murderer of a young gas station attendant who was stabbed 19 times in a robbery. Nor, Anderson hastens to tell us, did Horton actually stab his male Maryland victim years later; he "scratched" him with his knife after tying him up. Anderson notes the man's rage at being unable to prevent his fiance's rape, but he disdains the man's rush to Boston to testify and rail against Dukakis.

Anderson is almost more protective of Horton, whom he calls a "loser," not "a person so depraved as to call his own humanity into question." But would Horton have lost his "humanity" by teaching and working in a medium-security prison while serving a life sentence for murder, as he was doing? Shouldn't he have been furloughed later in life, if at all, after more exhaustive examination? If a court tries, convicts and sentences someone, hasn't society spoken as judiciously as it possibly could, unless the process was tainted? Don't people who can't imagine a wiser disposition by "experts" have the right -- indeed, the need -- to see a life sentence stick, except in unusual, well-explained circumstances?

Not really, says Anderson, who mistakes legitimately angry citizens for demagogues almost as often as some people mistake all inmates for Horton. He readily cites "my friends in criminal justice agencies" but learns far more slowly, from letters to the Times accusing him of "ivory tower arrogance," that "hard-working . . . citizens who supported the society's basic values" feel betrayed by a justice system that doesn't.

Some who deplored Horton's furlough, black as well as white, can recall a society whose internalized moral codes -- stigmata and all -- kept poor, uneducated and even racially segregated people far enough from committing mayhem so that doors could be left unlocked. That security may even have opened political doors to social justice that are now all but locked by fear and demagoguery. A smarter, sterner system might help to affirm a moral contract that makes murder (and even the death penalty) unthinkable. But if Anderson wonders how such a society worked and might be renewed, it's not evident in his extenuated defense of corrections-bureaucracy friends against a public he mistrusts. n

Jim Sleeper is a political columnist for the New York Daily News and the author of "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race."