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Why does the search for truth in criminal cases sometimes resemble a game of three-card Monte? Ask Thomas Reilly, the attorney general of the State of Massachusetts. He and a bevy of other Bay State law enforcement officials are defendants in a path-breaking lawsuit pending in U. S. District Court in Boston. The plaintiffs? An unlikely pair: The estate of Albert DeSalvo, better known to most of us as the “Boston Strangler,” and the estate of Mary Sullivan, long thought to be the strangler’s last victim. Both estates seek truth. The law enforcement officers seek finality. The Boston Strangler case is part of American folklore. It rates right up there with “Jack the Ripper” as one of modern history’s most infamous crime sprees. And it helped make popular the by-now quite profitable entertainment genre devoted to serial killers. Hannibal Lecter tantalizes because he is so, well, evil. In the early 1960s, metropolitan Boston was drenched in the blood lust of a sexual psychopath. Panic choked city residents. Newspapers speculated profitably about the “Mad Strangler,” the “Phantom Strangler” and the “Sunset Killer.” On January 4, 1964, Mary Sullivan, a young woman who moved to Boston only days before from quiet Cape Cod, was found dead in her apartment. She had been sexually assaulted and violated with a broomstick. Three ligatures did death’s work. An angry public demanded an arrest. Ambitious politicians saw fame and opportunity. Rules were bent by cops intent on catching the killer. Enter Albert DeSalvo, a man with a troubled past and a sexual appetite strong enough to tire a satyr. Incarcerated on other charges, DeSalvo fell under the influence of convicted killer and fellow inmate George Nasser. Soon DeSalvo would not even meet with his family unless Nasser was present. Nasser introduced DeSalvo to his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, who even then was hungry for fame and fortune. Soon DeSalvo confessed to 11 killings in a deal brokered by Bailey. DeSalvo, frantic to support his family, “sold” the rights to his story for a partial payment of $15,000. Those funds ended up in Bailey’s account, and DeSalvo unsuccessfully grieved Bailey for their return. Boston’s Brahmins breathed a sigh of relief. Crime was solved, careers made, and, that most intangible prize of all in a criminal prosecution delivered to the families of the victims: “closure.” But was closure purchased at the expense of truth? A Boston Police Department task force analyzed DeSalvo’s confessions. Of 63 concrete statements made by DeSalvo, all but a handful were in error or questionable. For example, DeSalvo claimed to have gagged Sullivan, and choked her before placing the ligatures around her neck. These “facts” are untrue. Mary Sullivan’s family wants justice. They want to read reports that the department will not release or make public. On Oct. 13, 2000, the body of Mary Sullivan was exhumed. The victim’s family wants to permit a team of forensic specialists to reexamine the data. The victim’s family wants Mary Sullivan’s property back. The victim’s family wants DNA testing. To all this, Massachusetts’ law enforcement officers say no. A suit filed in state court by the victim’s estate and the estate of DeSalvo has been removed to federal court. The search for truth is being held hostage by law enforcement officers who dare not permit anyone to challenge their assertion that the case is closed. Albert DeSalvo has been dead since 1973, the victim of a prison murder. The only parties who stand to lose if truth is exposed are those who potentially rushed to judgment decades ago. Something is rotten in Boston. Norm Pattis is a name partner at New Haven, Conn.’s Williams and Pattis.

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