Albert Henry DeSalvo Trial: 1967

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Albert Henry DeSalvo Trial: 1967

Defendant: Albert Henry DeSalvo
Crimes Charged: Armed Robbery, Sex Offenses
Chief Defense Lawyer: F. Lee Bailey
Chief Prosecutor: Donald L. Conn
Judge: Cornelius J. Moynihan
Place: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date of Trial: January 11-18, 1967
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life Imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: When Albert DeSalvo stood trial in Massachusetts courtroom for armed robbery and sexual assault, everyone present knew they were looking at the self-confessed "Boston Strangler." Aware that legal complexities prevented DeSalvo's indictment as the Strangler, his lawyers used the enormity of those crimes to bolster their claim that DeSalvo was insane and therefore not culpable on the present charges.

Boston, Massachusetts, was a city under siege in January 1964. A reign of terror had left 13 women, ranging in age from 19 to 85, dead at the hands of a killer known as the "Boston Strangler." All of the victims were slain in their own homes by a person who seemed able to gain entrance to strange apartments at will and was possessed of an ability to elude his pursuers. And then as abruptly as they began, the killings stopped.

Fears of the Strangler were beginning to fade when, on October 27, 1964, a young Cambridge housewife called police to complain of a knife-wielding intruder who had bound and molested her. Afterwards he had loosened her bonds, mumbled, "I'm sorry," and fled the apartment. Detectives recognized the victim's description of her attacker as that of 32-year-old Albert DeSalvo, known as the "Measuring Man" from his habit of coaxing women into letting him take their measurements with a tailor's tape, under pretext of working for a modeling agency.

Following DeSalvo's arrest, it came to light that he was also the "Green Man," a mass rapist so-called because of the green slacks he wore. Psychiatrists diagnosed DeSalvo as "potentially suicidal and quite clearly overtly schizophrenic," and on February 4, 1965, he was committed to Bridgewater State Hospital "until further order of the court."

It was while in Bridgewater that DeSalvo first began hinting that he was the Boston Strangler. A fellow inmate contacted attorney F. Lee Bailey and asked him to visit DeSalvo. What Bailey heard convinced him that DeSalvo was truthful. Under hypnosis and a promise of immunity from prosecution, DeSalvo made a series of tape-recorded confessions in which he gave graphic accounts of the Strangler murder scenes, including details that only the killer could have known.

These confessions posed an awkward legal problem. Because they were uncorroborated, and because DeSalvo had already been adjudged mentally incompetent, the state was reluctant to proceed against him on the stranglings. Instead, a compromise was worked out. DeSalvo would stand trial for his "Green Man" offenses and receive a mandatory life sentence. Bailey, determined those years should be spent receiving treatment, set out to prove DeSalvo insane.

Sanity Hearing

At a pretrial competency hearing on January 10, 1967, DeSalvo declared that he was not seeking his freedom and would "go anywhere necessary to receive proper treatment." Asked by the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Donald L. Conn, why he had retained F. Lee Bailey, DeSalvo answered:

To defend me, to bring out the truth, rather than let me be buried somewhere where they'd never get at the truth. I'd like, myself, to know what happened to bring out what's inside of me that I couldn't understand.

At the end of the day-long hearing. Judge Cornelius J. Moynihan found DeSalvo competent and announced that his trial would commence the next day.

It began with testimony from four women, all of whom had been attacked by DeSalvo in their homes. Two spoke of awakening to find DeSalvo, an experienced burglar, in their bedroom. One said he had pretended to be a detective before tying her up and committing the offense. As he was leaving, she said, "he asked me to forgive him and not to tell his mother."

Dr. James A. Brussel, associate commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, recounted DeSalvo's grim upbringing. His father had beaten the children repeatedly and often forced his wife to have sexual relations in front of them. The experience left DeSalvo morbidly preoccupied with sex, and with his own wife unable or unwilling to satisfy his voracious appetite, he looked elsewhere. Molestation led to rape, and ultimately to murder.

Prosecutor Conn, who had argued unsuccessfully to have all mention of murder excluded from this case, disputed Dr. Brussel's diagnosis of DeSalvo as a man reacting to an "irresistible drive." What did that mean? After much thought, Brussel replied, "He thought he was God in his own self-created world."

Conn wasn't so sure. He produced another Bridgewater inmate, Stanley Setterland, who said that DeSalvo had bragged of a cunning strategy: he would make a lot of money from his confession, then hire a good lawyer. The lawyer would have him placed in a hospital for a brain operation, after which he would be declared sane and freed.

Conn pushed Setterland hard, determined to expose DeSalvo as a schemer, perfectly aware of his actions. "What did he [tell you he did] after the killings?"

"He wiped everything so he wouldn't leave fingerprints."

When Dr. Ames Robey, medical director of Bridgewater, took the stand, Bailey grilled him about several contradictory diagnoses of DeSalvo. First, Robey had declared DeSalvo sane, then changed his mind, then reverted to his original opinion.

"Why did you change the diagnosis?" asked Bailey.

"I felt I had been taken in."

"Are you saying Albert conned you?"

"I'm afraid so," the doctor conceded.

Robey also admitted that his latest change of heart had been inspired in part by Setterland's own performance on the stand. Bailey looked askance and produced Bridgewater records showing that Robey had once diagnosed Setterland as a patient capable of "a considerable degree of lying on an enormous amount of issues."

"When did you decide Setterland was a man of truth?" he asked with sarcasm.

Flustered, Dr. Robey said that Setterland was "looking a great deal better" after his recent discharge from Bridgewater, and that his testimony given just days previously confirmed Robey's current belief that DeSalvo was manipulative and an "attention grabber," a patient with an "extensive need to prove what a big man he was."

Final Arguments

Bailey closed with an impassioned plea on DeSalvo's behalf. He wasn't asking for freedom for this "dangerous uncontrollable beast" indeed "DeSalvo wants society to be protected from him," but he demanded a verdict of insanity so that DeSalvo could receive proper treatment instead of being locked away.

Prosecutor Conn saw things quite differently. He saw DeSalvo as just one more cunning criminal who had feigned the symptoms of mental illness to avoid the consequences of his actions. He told the jury:

It's my duty to my wife, to your wife, to every woman who might conceivably be a victim of this man, to stamp his conduct for what it isvicious, criminal conduct. Don't let this man con you right out of your shoes!

In his final charge to the jury, Judge Moynihan reminded them they were to purge all thoughts of the Boston Strangler from their minds and decide this case on its merits alone.

On January 18, 1967, they did just that, finding Albert DeSalvo sane and guilty on all 10 counts. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

To reporters later, Bailey commented, "Massachusetts has burned another witch. No fault of the jury's, of course. It's the fault of the law."

On February 24, 1967, Albert DeSalvo and two other inmates escaped from Bridgewater. Murderer Frederick E. Erickson, 40, and armed robber George W. Harrisson, 35, were recaptured that same day, but for 24 hours the city of Boston cringed, waiting for the Strangler to strike again. It didn't happen. The next day DeSalvo was arrested in a clothing store in Lynn, Massachusetts, claiming to have escaped only to draw attention to his case. Nervous authorities decided that in the future DeSalvo would be housed in the maximum-security Walpole State Prison.

Eight months later Albert DeSalvo received an additional 7-10 years for escaping. His brothers, Richard, 32, and Joseph, 37, were each given one-year suspended sentences for aiding in the escape.

On November 26, 1973, Albert DeSalvo was stabbed to death by another inmate at Walpole State Prison. His killer was never apprehended.

Despite his many confessions, Albert DeSalvo was never tried as the Boston Strangler. Some feel that he fabricated the whole story, relying on his contact with the actual killer (allegedly another Bridgewater inmate) for the details of the crimes. Oddly enough, none of the eyewitnesses who saw the Boston Strangler identified DeSalvo as the killer, but one fact is undeniable: Boston's reign of terror ended with the incarceration of this strange and troubled man.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Banks, Harold K. The Strangler! New York: Avon, 1967.

Brussel, James A. Casebook Of A Crime Psychologist. New York: Grove, 1968.

Frank, Gerald. The Boston Strangler. New York: New American Library, 1966.

Gaute, J.H.H and Robin Odell. The Murderers' Who's Who. London: W.H. Allen, 1989.