Dukakis & Willie Horton

The Willie Horton case

In Massachusetts, first-degree murderers used to get out of prison for the weekend …

Governor Michael Dukakis believed that it was “rehabilitative” for prisoners to be allowed to roam the streets unsupervised in what was known as the Prison Furlough Program.

That practice was finally outlawed by state legislators on April 28, 1988, after an enormous grassroots petition drive brought the issue before the people.

Here are the cold hard facts about Governor Dukakis’ “experiment in justice,” which has received little coverage on campaign news broadcasts:

  • On June 6, 1986, convicted murderer Willie Horton was released from the Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord. Under state law, he had become eligible for an unguarded, 48-hour furlough. He never came back.
  • Horton showed up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on April 3, 1987. Clifford Barnes, 28, heard footsteps in his house and thought his fiancée had returned early from a wedding party. Suddenly Willie Horton stepped out of the shadows with a gun. For the next seven hours, Horton punched, pistol-whipped, and kicked Barnes – and also cut him 22 times across his midsection.
  • When Barnes’ fiancée Angela returned that evening, Horton gagged her and savagely raped her twice. Horton then stole Barnes’ car, and was later chased by police until captured.
  • On October 20, 1987, Horton was sentenced in Maryland to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years. The sentencing judge refused to return Horton to Massachusetts, saying, “I’m not prepared to take the chance that Mr. Horton might again be furloughed or otherwise released. This man should never draw a breath of free air again.”
  • Variations of this story were repeated on several occasions in Massachusetts. Confessed rapist John Zukoski, who had brutally beaten and murdered a 44 year-old woman in 1970, became eligible for furloughs and was eventually paroled in 1986. A few months later he was arrested and indicted yet again for beating and raping a woman.
  • The Massachusetts inmate furlough program actually began under Governor Francis Sargent in 1972. But in 1976 Governor Dukakis vetoed a bill to ban furloughs for first-degree murderers. It would, he said, “Cut the heart out of inmate rehabilitation.”
  • The program, in essence, released killers on an “honor system” to see if they would stay out of trouble. On the average, convicts who had been sentenced to “life without parole” spent fewer than 19 years in prison. By March 1987, Dukakis had commuted the sentences of 28 first-degree murderers.
  • Of over 80 Massachusetts convicts listed as escaped and still at large, only four had actually “escaped.” The rest simply walked away from furloughs, prerelease centers and other minimum-security programs. These convicts included murderers, rapists, armed robbers and drug dealers.
  • First-degree murderer Armand Therrien was transferred from a medium security prison to a minimum-security one, which made him eligible for a work-release program. He walked off and vanished in December 1987.
  • When citizens began to protest, Dukakis and his aides defended the program relentlessly. One commissioner stated that furloughs were a “management tool” to help the prisons. Unless a convict had hope of parole, he argued, “we would have a very dangerous population in an already dangerous system.” But, critics wondered, if armed guards can’t control dangerous killers inside locked cells, how are unarmed citizens supposed to deal with them?
  • It was through the efforts of a grassroots organization, Citizens Against Unsafe Society, that the issue was finally brought before the people. With mounting pressure from his own aides to sign a bill ending the program – for fear that it would hurt his presidential campaign – Dukakis signed the legislation in April of this year.

America … do we want a president in office who would try the same “experiment in justice” on a national level?

The majority of this material was taken from the article “Getting Away with Murder,” by Robert James Bidinotto, which appeared in Reader’s Digest, July 1988.

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