On Aug. 25, a brilliant late summer morning, John Geoghan was posthumously sentenced to death on a Boston sidewalk by a jury of his peers. The defrocked priest and accused molester of 147 children had died two days earlier, strangled in his Massachusetts prison cell with his sock and shoelace. But for the small knot of passersby squinting at his picture through the glass of a newspaper box, his trial was just winding down.
"Good," hissed a mother, the toddler on her hip sucking a blinding green Popsicle. "What if he'd got out?"
The crowd stood for a moment in silence. "Got what was coming to him," an old man confirmed. For this jury, justice had been served.
But whose justice? Not the courts': Only three states - Louisiana, Florida, and Montana - allow death as a legal penalty for sex crimes. (Louisiana's law, the only one used in decades, is expected to soon be appealed to the US Supreme Court.) Massachusetts law forbids the death penalty altogether. Although Geoghan's case touched off the Boston priest abuse scandal and epitomized its most intimate violations, he had been found guilty at the time of his death in only one molestation case. His sentence was nine to 10 years.
Yet many Americans, not just those Bostonians by the newspaper box, reacted to news of Geoghan's murder with little more than a shrug. That reaction, prisoner advocates and ethicists argue, is dangerous because it tacitly accepts - even encourages - the ruthless system of inmate vigilante "justice" that may have motivated Geoghan's killer. It is also, they say, one of the main reasons such abuses are allowed to continue behind locked doors.
"I don't want to play Solomon," says Leslie Walker of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, who represented Geoghan in the months before his death and was the last one from her office to see him alive. "Can the guilt be spread around? Sure. Is the classification system that put a frail pedophile in a unit with a homophobic murderer responsible in some way for this death? Yes.
"Does society - do people on the outside who look the other way, who don't want to know that systematic abuse by inmates and by guards goes on inside US prisons every single day - do they have some responsibility, too?" she asks. "I think so. It's happening in our name and with our tax dollars."
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Every year, tens of thousands of inmates in state and federal custody are attacked. The exact number who die is difficult to determine: According to the nonprofit Criminal Justice Institute, in 2000, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled, 55 inmates were murdered, 39 died "accidentally," and 118 died for unknown reasons. The California nonprofit Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that 1 in 5 men is raped in custody. The group's cause got unprecedented recognition last week when President Bush signed into law national legislation supporting study of the issue.
Prison rape victims fit no single profile. But Human Rights Watch International, which examined the phenomenon in a 2001 report, found that "physical weakness; being white, gay, or a first offender; ... being unassertive, unaggressive, shy, intellectual, not street-smart, or 'passive'; or having been convicted of a sexual offense against a minor" all increase an inmate's vulnerability. Many attacks are a means to extort money or assert power. But corrections officers and prisoner advocates agree a different dynamic is at work in the victimization of pedophiles: There's a merciless pecking order inside, they say, and pedophiles are at the bottom.
"Remember, a lot of people in the prison system spent time in juvenile institutions too - a lot of them were victimized as kids," says Human Rights Watch's Joanne Mariner, the author of the report. Retribution against sex criminals, she says, may be their way of saying: "Even in prison we have a moral-values system, and our moral-values system is shocked by the crimes of the pedophile."
Prison officials acknowledge that violent inmate assaults happen, though not with the frequency critics claim. "I've seen it, unfortunately," says Justin Latini, the director of public affairs at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, who stumbled back from vacation last week into the middle of the Geoghan investigation. Mr. Latini could not comment on the regularity of such attacks.
A touchier issue is one Ms. Walker of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services says is important to explore in Geoghan's case: that of abuse by guards. When he was being held at MCI-Concord, before his transfer to the Souza- Baranowski maximum-security facility where he died, Geoghan told Walker guards were urinating and defecating on his bed, fouling his food, and posting articles about him in common areas. She says other convicted pedophile priests in his wing told her that guards abused Geoghan more severely than any of them.
Latini will not comment on either the Geoghan case or guard abuse in Massachusetts prisons. He does say training and security are better today than when he joined the DOC "23 short years ago." Guards, he says, operate according to an adage he learned when he started: "Inmates get exactly what they deserve - nothing more, but nothing less."
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For inmate Joseph Druce, Geoghan's confessed murderer, the old man's well-planned end was exactly what he deserved. Though Mr. Druce's public defender, John LaChance, declined comment for this article, he told the Boston Globe last month that Druce had told him he was very concerned with "saving" children from sexual abuse. In a press conference last month, Mr. LaChance said his client, already serving a life sentence for murder, would probably plead insanity when he faces a grand jury this month.
Still, Druce's apparent view of what Geoghan deserved resonates in a society with a long tradition of vigilantism. "Obviously the guy who killed Father Geoghan in prison would see himself doing vigilante justice - and that's an ethic that's shared by a lot of people," judicial ethicist Thomas Geraghty says. "I think it remains because a lot of people still feel the justice system doesn't do its job."
Dr. Geraghty, who directs the Bluhm legal clinic at Chicago's Northwestern University, says Americans can romanticize vigilante justice precisely because their society has been successfully governed by the rule of law for so long. If any of those who so righteously applauded Geoghan's death had experienced a truly retributive justice system, he says, they would not be so quick to judge.
"I just have to believe that the people who say extrajudicial killing is OK are responding emotionally, and haven't thought through the implications of what they're saying," says the death-penalty opponent. "That's like saying it's OK to take someone out and lynch them."
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For Ms. Mariner of Human Rights Watch, the public has a partner in its silent complicity: the press. Both, she says, demand astonishingly little accountability from a system that runs on their tax money - so little that prison-rape jokes are a staple of popular entertainment.
In part, that's a result of ignorance, she says: People lead busy lives, and as long as no one they love is affected by prisoner abuse, they don't want to know details. Few middle-class voters know someone in prison, Walker says, or realize that the system is crowded with nonviolent offenders from the nation's inner cities.
This leads to the perception, she says, that if somebody winds up in the system, they deserve whatever happens to them there. Though courts have awarded a handful of inmates restitution on the grounds that abuse they suffered in prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment, they're by far the minority.
"Something people don't do is put themselves in the position of someone who's going to prison," Walker says. It doesn't just mean not tucking your kids in at night, she says: The whole world of choices that defined you as a human being is suddenly taken from you. "It's a deprivation that's hard to believe until you're living it - and it's enough," she says. "Add to it this torture, and it's too much. It's not punishment, then, it's a human rights violation."
In Geoghan's case, prison experts say, public ambivalence toward that violation is understandable. Invariably, they say, the average citizen weighs Geoghan's fate in her mind against the unthinkable violations he allegedly committed against children - and finds the abuse of such a notorious abuser hard to condemn entirely.
As ethical watchdogs point out, though, criminal laws are not written to reflect individuals' visceral reactions to the crimes that hurt and horrify them. This, they say, is because justice, at its best, is measured and thoughtful. Justice, at its best, humanizes even the guiltiest members of a society. That humane model of justice is the ground on which this nation stands, they say. Few who call it home would recognize their land without it.
In the eyes of that justice system, whatever its flaws, Geoghan was not the symbol for the hurt that his church's secrets and lies have caused its faithful. He was a man who deserved to be tried for his crimes in the courts like any other man.
If, as Russian novelist and prisoner Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," Geoghan's murder is not only a window on the chronic inmate abuse in US prisons and jails, Mariner says. It is also an ugly commentary on the society that fills them.