Convict's cause is tested
Supporters shaken by DNA findings
By David Arnold, Globe Staff, 3/28/2002
They were convinced they were helping a wrongly convicted man, staking their money, time, and reputations on his 19-year quest for justice. In their eyes, Benjamin LaGuer was an innocent man serving a life sentence for someone else's crime.
But now, the supporters of LaGuer - a black man convicted by an all-white Worcester County jury of raping and beating his 59-year-old neighbor - must confront the stunning possibility that the convict conned them.
Last week, a coterie of renown authors, intellectuals, journalists, and the president of Boston University learned that DNA tests on newly discovered evidence all but confirmed that LaGuer was at the crime scene in 1983. They had hoped that the tests, for which they had fought for two years and raised $30,000, would prove that LaGuer was the victim in a cruel case of mistaken identity.
''I was brutally disappointed,'' said Allen Fletcher, who had written several articles early in the LaGuer saga for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette and now publishes Worcester magazine. ''There is no way he is innocent.''
Worcester District Attorney John Conte, who prosecuted LaGuer and battled against testing the evidence, said it ultimately proved what he believed all along.
''In 1984 we proved Mr. LaGuer's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, that is, to a moral majority,'' said a statement issued by Conte's office on Tuesday night.
LaGuer maintains his innocence. He contends that police, anxious to solve a high-profile case, framed him.
Leslie Epstein, who directs the creative writing program at Boston University, was among LaGuer's supporters. He said he was shocked when he heard the DNA test results and considers it far-fetched - but not out of the question - that LaGuer was framed.
''Not two days before, I had sent a check to help pay for the tests. I considered canceling it,'' Epstein said. ''There would have been time. Then I decided, no.
''If he is guilty, redemption has taken place. He has a purified soul,'' Epstein said.
Through prison correspondence, Epstein and others had become impressed by LaGuer's intelligence and grew disturbed by apparent disparities in the state's case against him.
LaGuer was convicted for assaulting, robbing, and raping the woman for eight hours in 1983. Though there was little evidence, a jury convicted LaGuer primarily on the victim's identification of him as the rapist.
In the years that followed, however, LaGuer continued to proclaim his innocence, attracting a group of followers via letters and telephone calls from prison.
On its face, the case seems flawed: There was no clear evidence directly linking LaGuer to the crime scene, he had no criminal record, and hospital records showed the victim suffered from schizophrenia. Meanwhile, blood typing and fingerprint evidence by police have been the subject of much post-trial litigation.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the case is that LaGuer faced an all-white jury - and jurors reportedly made racist comments during their deliberations.
As word of his case spread, the LaGuer camp grew to include author William Styron, Boston University President John Silber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky, and several dozen volunteer lawyers.
''Almost from the beginning I told him I would have nothing to do with him if I sensed something did not add up about his claims of innocence,'' said Minister Don Muhammad, a Nation of Islam leader in the Boston area. ''In all the years, he has never misled me. That's how you become a Ben LaGuer believer.''
Local and national journalists, including ABC-TV's Barbara Walters, soon began to investigate the case. She featured LaGuer on the news program ''20/20'' two years ago, shortly after private investigators working on LaGuer's behalf discovered a rape investigation kit in a box of evidence tucked away in Worcester Superior Court.
The kit included a sealed packet containing pubic hairs from the victim and a minimal amount of semen from her assailant. Convinced the evidence would prove that he wasn't the rapist, LaGuer's supporters spent two years fighting to have Conte agree to test it. Earlier this year, they sent the samples to a California DNA lab.
But the results, made public last Saturday, showed the samples matched LaGuer's DNA profile. For the first time in nearly two decades of legal maneuverings, there was evidence directly linking him to the crime.
LaGuer now postulates that the police, desperate to prove that a rape had occurred, took underwear from his apartment back in 1983 and used it to deposit a small amount of his semen on the hair samples in the rape kit.
Conceivable, but highly improbable, some supporters say. Others, however, find the theory of police tampering quite plausible.
''Nothing about this case would surprise me anymore,'' Muhammad said. ''So much of the evidence has been mishandled. I'm going to have to see a whole lot more to change my mind about Ben's innocence.''
LaGuer has appeared twice before the state parole board, but remains in prison in part because he refuses to confess to the crime. His next parole hearing is scheduled for June 2003. Until then, he's likely to stay behind bars, according to some supporters who had already started to plan LaGuer's prison release party.
Still, despite his disappointment, Fletcher said LaGuer's self-improvement while in prison and his tireless quest for freedom have been inspiring.
''While Ben has been
in prison,'' Fletcher said, ''it would be difficult to imagine someone
who has not become a better person through association with him.''