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Reasonable Doubts?

Sebastian Junger revisits the Boston Strangler, a convicted man, and his mother's memory.



picture this. There's a photo: You're an infant in your mother's lap. Your mother is looking down and smiling. But standing behind her is a man staring straight into the camera.

If you're Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and a journalist who's reported from some of the world's worst hotspots -- Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir, Afghanistan -- the infant in the photo is you, the woman is your mother, and the man is Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler, a serial killer who raped and murdered 13 women in the early 1960s.

Ellen Junger, the author's mother, remembers the picture being taken on March 12, 1963, in Belmont, Massachusetts, an affluent, all-white community outside Boston. It's where Sebastian Junger grew up, and it's where an elderly woman named Bessie Goldberg was murdered on March 11th of that year. DeSalvo was a member of the crew building an addition onto the Jungers' house, but police didn't suspect DeSalvo of the Goldberg murder. They didn't suspect DeSalvo of anything yet. They focused on a black man named Roy Smith.

On the day of Mrs. Goldberg's death, Smith had been sent by an employment agency to clean the Goldberg home. He had a criminal record (but nothing so serious as rape or murder) reaching back to his days in Oxford, Mississippi. He'd done time in Parchman penitentiary. He'd lived in Memphis. In 1963, he was living in Boston and still leading a life of petty crime. But on November 23, 1963, a white, male jury found Smith guilty of murdering Bessie Goldberg and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Not one piece of hard evidence, however, tied him to the crime, a crime that fit the work of the Boston Strangler. It was one crime, however, that DeSalvo never confessed to. What's known and what's still unknowable about this story is the subject of Sebastian Junger's gripping new book, A Death in Belmont (W.W. Norton).

"It was a story I'd grown up with," Junger says. "And I got to a point where I thought I've got to look into this. I'd done enough war reporting for a while."

That left him room to review a crime case that many thought opened and shut. Junger's research led him to police files and court proceedings, to surviving investigators and new investigators, to legalities and racial attitudes, and to Oxford and Memphis to interview members of Smith's extended family. And still Junger can't establish beyond doubt the identity of Bessie Goldberg's killer. But he can say this of Roy Smith:

"What I found was a pretty troubled guy. He'd had a string of crimes behind him. But there wasn't anything to suggest sexual violence, that particular pathology. You can be a drunk. You can rob a gas station. It doesn't mean you'd rape and strangle an old woman. But Smith was redeemed in prison. He straightened himself out. I was impressed by that."

Not so impressed was lawyer Alan Dershowitz in his review of A Death in Belmont in The New York Times, a review that recognized the journalistic difficulties Junger was working under. But Dershowitz also criticized the book for forcing a dramatic payoff in a story where such a payoff doesn't exist. Readers, according to Dershowitz, should approach Junger's unfootnoted, novelistic narrative with caution.

"I was puzzled by it," Junger says of the review. "I thought I'd explained the limits of responsible journalism, and I felt he was twisting what I said and used it against me, as if I hadn't respected those limits.

"There's no journalistic sin in writing something that's readable. The question is whether you stay within the facts. I mean, you can structure a book so it's a piece of impenetrable, academic writing. Or you can structure it so that it pulls readers in. I'm writing for people who go to bookstores, who read. Footnotes are not a standard in popular writing and never have been. I've got my notes. They're just not in the book."

What's there in the book, no question about it: doubts -- doubts about Roy Smith's murder of Bessie Goldberg, doubts about police conduct and the criminal justice system, even doubts about the identity of the Boston Strangler.

No doubt, however: the chilling effect Albert DeSalvo had on Ellen Junger the morning she found him not on the work site but in her basement, asking that she climb down the stairs to see to the washing machine that he told her wasn't working. Why was DeSalvo even in the house? Why was he talking about an appliance? Why did the look on his face tell Ellen Junger to stay put, shut the door, and lock it. A scene that could have come out of a novel? Maybe, but it happened in Belmont, and it scared Sebastian Junger's mother but not to death.

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