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Unwarranted secrecy
The Geoghan panel’s findings should be made public. Plus, John Ashcroft’s deadly obsession, and George W. Bush’s popular front.

WHEN GOVERNOR Mitt Romney named an outside panel to investigate the savage jailhouse killing of convicted child molester John Geoghan, the public had every reason to believe that the findings would be made public.

Or not. Over the weekend came word that the panel’s report, already a month overdue, may fail to tell the whole story. And in a sure sign that administration officials are running for cover, the task of explaining that the report may not be released in its entirety fell not to Romney, nor even to public-safety secretary Edward Flynn. No, the bad news came from Flynn’s deputy chief of staff, Christine Cole, who told the Boston Globe, "We want to release as much as possible, but we have to be careful of certain restrictions." The most mind-boggling of these restrictions, according to the Globe report: "She cited concerns for the privacy of the state Department of Correction officials whose roles in supervising Geoghan have been a focus of the four-month investigation."

Cole also said the report would not include statements from witnesses that may interfere with the prosecution of Joseph Druce, who is charged with killing Geoghan at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, in Shirley, last August 23. Assuming there’s an actual legal basis to the claim, that’s understandable, although certainly those statements should be released after Druce’s trial.

What’s truly unconscionable is Cole’s suggestion that the guards’ privacy needs must be considered before deciding how much of the report may be released to the very public in whose name the investigation is being conducted.

Presumably she is not talking about small matters such as the guards’ home addresses and names of family members; the need to protect guards and their families from revenge-seeking ex-prisoners goes without saying. So she must be referring to something substantive, although her statement leaves it unclear as to precisely what that something might be. No wonder her comments were timed to be published on December 27, in the midst of what for most people is a long, news-free holiday weekend.

As previous news reports have suggested, the story that has yet to be fully told is what happened during Geoghan’s months at the state prison in Concord, where, according to some accounts, he was so tormented by guards that he sought a transfer to Shirley — even though it meant being shipped to a unit for violent inmates, obviously an inappropriate environment for the elderly former priest.

Earlier news reports have revealed that the panel’s findings are likely to be quite critical of the way things are run at Concord. The entire story — not just parts of it — needs to be told.

Cape Cod Times metro editor Paul Pronovost, who serves as Massachusetts "sunshine" chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, says it looks to him like Cole was trotted out in an attempt by state officials to see how much secrecy the public will stand for.

"It appears they’re floating some trial balloons to see what they can and cannot get away with releasing," says Pronovost, adding he may take up the matter with his organization’s national office.

If Pronovost is right, then Romney needs to hear from you. E-mail the governor’s office at GOffice@state.ma.us, or call (617) 725-4005. Let the governor’s staff know that what happened to John Geoghan is a matter of vital concern — and that the public’s business must be conducted in public.

GARY SAMPSON may deserve the death penalty, but we don’t. As the Phoenix has argued in the past, capital punishment, in addition to not being a deterrent, is barbaric, arbitrary, and unbecoming a humane culture. That a hate-mongering zealot such as Attorney General John Ashcroft would forcibly impose his twisted values on Massachusetts, one of just 12 states without a death penalty, is a grotesque outrage.

In Sampson’s case, at least, there is no chance that he will die for murders he did not commit, because he confessed, and because mounds of evidence support his confession. But mere accuracy — cited by Governor Romney as a leading concern in his own push to craft a new death-penalty bill — should be the least of our concerns.

Even in Sampson’s specific case, the death penalty is an abomination. The two murders of which Sampson was convicted (he also allegedly committed a third, in New Hampshire) were unusually brutal. Yet what are we to make of the fact that he tried to surrender before he killed anyone, and that he failed to do so only because of the incompetence of the FBI? Does that count for nothing? Does it not at least raise legitimate questions about Sampson’s sanity, or lack thereof, on which his unsuccessful defense was based?

Time was when Republicans embraced the notion of federalism — of restricting the federal government’s reach to matters of national concern, leaving it to the states to handle local affairs. Now, though, on matters such as medical marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty, Republicans seek to force the states to go along with their own narrow-minded agenda.

"In terms of states’ rights, Massachusetts has made it clear that it doesn’t want to have the death penalty," says Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "And yet the federal government is now trying to impose it in a way that bypasses the electoral system."

Ashcroft has reportedly embarked on a nationwide crusade to try suspected murderers in federal courts in states that don’t have the death penalty.

By overriding state prerogatives on matters of life and death, Ashcroft is proving, once again, his utter unfitness for office. We would call for his removal except that he is so obviously doing exactly what President Bush wants.

WHAT A difference a rising Dow and a fallen Saddam Hussein make.

The violence continues unabated in Iraq. On Saturday, a massive, coordinated attack in the southern city of Karbala claimed the lives of at least 13 people, including four soldiers from the US-led coalition. Hundreds were reportedly wounded. On Sunday, two American soldiers died, one at the hands of rebel forces, the other from an unknown illness. Well over 300 US troops have died in Iraq since George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" last May 1.

Yet none of this matters to the disengaged American public. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, the proportion of people who approve of how Bush is performing his job now stands at 59 percent, up from 53 percent two months ago. The proportion of those disapproving has fallen from 43 percent to just 38 percent.

Bush’s handling of the economy has gone from 42 percent approval/56 percent disapproval in September to 51 percent approval/44 percent disapproval today.

The exceedingly difficult case his Democratic opponents must make is that Saddam’s capture and the improving short-term economic numbers are but isolated moments in three years of failed policies whose consequences will be proven disastrous in the long run. The war in Iraq was a tragic mistake based on White House lies about weapons of mass destruction. The improving economy is being fueled by obscene tax cuts for the rich and hundreds of billions of dollars in budget deficits.

Unfortunately, none of the Democratic candidates for president seems able to separate Bush’s systemic policy failures from his fleeting, media-friendly successes. Howard Dean’s simplistic criticism of the war and its aftermath offends. John Kerry’s nuanced complexity gets lost in the era of the sound bite. Joe Lieberman’s me-too hawkishness leaves one wondering why he doesn’t just endorse Bush and be done with it.

This is the winter of progressive discontent. It remains to be seen whether spring will bring anything better.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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