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Burden of Proof

Should the Boston Strangler Case be Re-Opened?

Aired May 19, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: He confessed to killing eleven women and admitted he was the infamous "Boston Strangler." But now, more than 35 years after the crimes, Albert DeSalvo's family and the family of a woman he said he murdered are asking for the case to be reopened. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, the case of the Boston strangler.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

When Albert DeSalvo confessed to the infamous Boston Strangler murders of the early 1960s, police did not have enough evidence to bring him to trial. Instead, he was tried and convicted for a series of unrelated crimes, and in 1973 was killed in prison by another inmate. Because of his confession, police never looked farther than DeSalvo and the case was closed.

But the case may now be reopened. Relatives of DeSalvo and the family of one of the women he confessed to killing are demanding that police turn over evidence and reports that could show he was not the Boston Strangler.

Joining us today in Boston, Timothy DeSalvo, the nephew of the confessed Boston Strangler. Also in Boston, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, the attorney who represents the DeSalvo family and the family of one of the Boston Strangler victims. And here in Washington, Tas Smith (ph), forensic science professor James Starrs, and Cate Brandon (ph). And in the back row, Lauren Shaw (ph) and Joseph Shaw (ph).

Elaine, let's go right to you: The Boston Strangler was one of the most notorious cases that ever came out of Boston. The city was in an uproar and terrorized. And Albert DeSalvo confessed to these crimes. Why would he have confessed if he didn't do them?

ELAINE WHITFIELD SHARP, ATTY. FOR THE DESALVO & SULLIVAN FAMILIES: He was induced to confess for a number of reason, one of which was that his lawyer then, F. Lee Bailey, told him that if he confessed to being the strangler, he would be treated as an insane person in the other crimes for which he was being tried, and then he'd end up in a mental institution instead of a prison.

He was also told he'd make a lot of money on book and movie rights. And Albert wasn't perfect, and we're not claiming that. And he certainly did pander to the media and wanted very, very much to be famous, to be recognized, and he did confess. And, in fact, the book and the movie was made. He didn't make much money in the end, but they were, in fact, made.

He was also very concerned to get money, you know, for being the strangler because he was then able to provide for his family; specifically for his wife Ermigard (ph) and his two children, Michael and Judy. There's the sum of the inducement.

COSSACK: Elaine, let me see if I understand: Are you saying that F. lee Bailey told his client to lie?

SHARP: I don't know what F. Lee Bailey told his client. I do know that F. Lee Bailey did tell his client that if he confessed to being the strangler, that he would go to Johns Hopkins University to be studied at the time for the criminal mind.

COSSACK: But you're convinced...

SHARP: In fact, F. Lee Bailey told -- said that on tape in a recent interview.

COSSACK: But you're convinced, of course, that Albert DeSalvo is not the Boston Strangler.

SHARP: Yes, yes, there are a lot of differences between the details of his confessions, the details of the crime scene. You know, as far as Mary Sullivan is concerned, he said he put a woolen sweater over her head. No woolen sweater. He said he put a knife next to her on the bed. No knife on the bed. He said he ejaculated in her. No sperm in the vagina. You know, just didn't match.

COSSACK: Tim DeSalvo, you are the nephew of Albert DeSalvo. What has it been like for the DeSalvo family all these years?

TIM DESALVO, NEPHEW OF ALBERT DESALVO: Well, if you can imagine, no matter where you go, like you said, this is a notorious crime and everybody relates to the fact that he is because they seen that -- or they were told that he confessed and they seen that he was put into prison. So they all assume that that must have been the overwhelming evidence to prove his guilt when he never was even tried for this.

COSSACK: Nor was he ever charged with it, is that right?

DESALVO: Correct, yes.

COSSACK: Now, your family has suffered. There's been things that have happened to your uncle and your father. Tell us about what it's been like to be -- have the name DeSalvo.

DESALVO: Well, for a quick scenario, going into a sandwich shop just to get a sandwich, and because of the business that I run, my name is on my shirt, and the lady who is supposed to take my order decides to ask me that I must have had a rough childhood. And before I even can put together what she's trying to tell me, people from the line are stepping in saying, oh yes, you're related or that's the name of the strangler or the killer that did all these horrific crimes. And, I mean, all I did is go in there to get a sandwich and this is the result of people's ignorance.

COSSACK: Elaine, what kind of evidence are you looking for from the Boston Police or the D.A.'s office to help you in your case?

SHARP: We're looking for any and all documentary evidence that the Boston Police Department has, and also in the possession of the state agencies: you know, confession tapes, transcripts of those, police reports, witness statements, autopsy reports -- very importantly, autopsy reports. We're also looking for trace evidence, real evidence: you know, semen samples, anything that we can get in order to rule out Albert DeSalvo as the killer.

Last year, incidentally, the Boston Police Department tried to do some testing. I believe it might have been on some semen. And they used a particular type of testing called DQ-alfa polymarker testing, and said, well, we can't find anything from this. It's too disintegrated. But they're just about to be accredited in a newer type of testing called STRO, short tandem repeat testing. And short tandem repeat testing, even though the DNA may be, you know, chopped up from disintegration, will yield a higher level, if you will, of accuracy.

But Jim Starrs is really the person to talk about that. My job, Roger, is to shake the tree to try to get the real evidence into the hands of Jim Starrs, who's the head of the forensic team, so that he can then take it to very highly qualified people, all of whom have volunteered their time on this case to have it tested, to see if we can't rewrite history.

COSSACK: Elaine, and we will get to Professor Starrs soon. But I want to just follow up with you one thing. For all of these years, people have been convinced -- I know I was until I started rereading about this -- that Albert DeSalvo had been tried and convicted and was the Boston Strangler. But, in fact, he never was tried, he never was convicted and he never was charged. How did it get from that position to this position where people just assumed that he is the Boston Strangler and was tried for it?

SHARP: There was a tremendous public hysteria at the time in 1964, '65 when Mary Sullivan -- she was the last victim of the strangler -- died. People, women, were being told by the state, shut your doors, lock your doors. There weren't enough guard dogs to go around. There was a general public hysteria. When Albert stepped forward and started confessing to these crimes, there was a tremendous relief. At that point, law enforcement was able to say, we've got the man, don't worry, everything's OK, everything's safe. And, basically, what they did was they closed the books too fast, too soon; they stopped the investigation.

And This is the point of the Sullivan family, of course, is that their aunt, Mary Sullivan, her murder was never investigated, and the other women weren't -- you know, the murders of the other women weren't investigated because of this confession. I cannot imagine a situation today in terms of gender politics where the brutal murders, sexual assault murders of 13 women wouldn't go uninvestigated.

COSSACK: All right, let me just interrupt you for one second.

Tim, we just have a brief amount of time with you. Tell me your feelings on how you will be if, in fact, this investigation goes forward. Now, you know there's a chance that it may prove that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler.

DESALVO: All the evidence that I was presented with and readings that I've had the opportunity to look at, it's going to be extremely difficult for anybody to find any evidence. They didn't have any evidence back 36 years ago -- no fingerprints, nothing, not a shred of evidence that ties him to any of those crime scenes. So I'm very confident that if we're able to get these records, that the technology and the science will prove him innocent. And that's what we're looking for right now is for everybody to come forth with the evidence that they have that they've been holding as a trophy, or the Boston Police don't want to release, and give that to us and let us do the proper investigation that was never done 36 years ago.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Tim DeSalvo, thank you for joining us.

When we come back, how DNA technology and other modern investigative techniques could help solve the mystery of the Boston Strangler. Stay with us.


Only six of 14 members of the Arkansas panel that will decide whether or not to strip President Clinton of his law license will actually hear the case. The committee did not say why the eight recused themselves, but five of them had contributed money to Clinton campaign or other Democratic Party activities.



COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: you can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log-on to We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show, and even join our chat room.

When Albert DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston strangler, there was no physical evidence to tie him to the crimes. Some say he could have learned everything he needed to know to make a convincing confession by simply reading the newspapers.

Joining our discussion now is Norman Zalkind, a Boston criminal defense attorney.

But first, I want to go to Professor Starrs. You are going to do some work on the evidence in this case, assuming that it is turned over by the police and the district attorney's office. What kind of evidence do you need and what kind of techniques and experiments would you conduct?

JAMES STARRS, PROFESSOR OF FORENSIC SCIENCE: Well, in the first instance, we would like to see whatever documentary evidence...

COSSACK: Why are the documents so important?

STARRS: Well, if the ultimate resolution of this case comes to exhuming Mary Sullivan, we certainly would like to know what kind of an autopsy, if any, was conducted on Mary Sullivan for the purposes of our better understanding as to what we may or may not find upon exhuming her remains.

There's no question that we are not going to exhume Albert DeSalvo because we do have, from his brother, any DNA that would be necessary for the purposes of matching against any other DNA that we may find. So that it is very important for us to see whether there are inconsistencies, whether there are gaps in the documentary evidence, whether there are things that were done that shouldn't have done, whether there were things that were not done that we could then do today for the purposes of better realizing the guilt or innocence.

And of course, I point out to you that I don't go in with an agenda. As a scientist, we go into this with the possibility on either side. I think a strong case can be made, as Elaine Sharp points out, for the innocence of Albert DeSalvo, but we are going to wait and see how it turns out with respect to the evidence that is submitted to us.

COSSACK: Jim, isn't there a problem, after 37 years of this evidence being -- having gotten to a point where it just can't be tested for DNA anymore?

STARRS: We haven't had any cases, to my knowledge, that have gone back that period of time in the innocence project of Barry Scheck. However, we've gone back, there's no question that all the DNA, particularly mitochondrial DNA is particularly robust, and will outlast many, many years. Indeed, we are doing it now on mummified features in Egypt and pharaoh's tombs and so on so that we can get DNA if it is not thoroughly degraded and contaminated.

I'm not worried about that at all. And we have a team of scientists who can do the work, and who have proves themselves as able to do it.

COSSACK: All right, Norman Zalkind, let me turn to you for a moment. Is this a case that should be reopened after 37 years?

NORMAN ZALKIND, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I wouldn't spend a lot of time and money on it. I mean, we have so many people that are on death row in this country and people that are doing life sentences in Massachusetts that may be innocent that that's where the resources should be spent.

The family's got to know that there were 11 victims, and of course, he may have confessed to all 11, but he could have possibly killed at least one or two or 10 of them. So they may be faced with that problem.

F. Lee Bailey, that was mentioned before, he was at the height of his game then, he was a great criminal defense lawyer. So I would be very careful before I would put any kind of negative thoughts about that man, particularly at that stage of his career.

And I just think, sure, they should be able to go and look at this evidence, and do this work, but I wouldn't have the state of Massachusetts pay for it. If the families want to invest their savings in this, then so be it. I think Attorney General Reilly in Massachusetts is open to letting them see the evidence. I don't think anybody is against them seeing the evidence. But what is it going to do? Are they going to find the real killer, so to speak? Well, that's always a possibility, but there weren't a string of strangulations after he was arrested, and that may mean that whoever was doing these killings, if it wasn't him, they stopped. The person could be dead, he could be arrested, he could have died in prison on some other event and...

COSSACK: Let me go to Elaine for a second, Norman.

Elaine, that's not a bad point, that the strangulations, the murders stopped after DeSalvo was arrested and incarcerated.

SHARP: That is incorrect actually. Mary Sullivan was killed January 4, 1964, Albert wasn't arrested for 10 months later. So there was a huge gap. There were no gaps of 10 months between any of the killings, as I'm sure Mr. Zalkind is aware.

COSSACK: Elaine, who is paying for this? Are you asking the state of Massachusetts for it?

SHARP: No, nobody, it is a completely private effort with pro bono time. I'm donating my time, so is Professor Starrs, so are the other scientific team members.

And I think it is also important to remember here, we are not asking the taxpayers to foot the bill. And while it may not be important to Mr. Zalkind or to his agenda, it is important to my clients that, A, Albert DeSalvo be ruled out as the killer because they've lived with the terrible stigma of that for many years, and it is also important to the Sullivan family to have closure on the death of their family member.

COSSACK: Let's take a break. Famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, who defended Albert DeSalvo as the Boston strangler, has said he believes his client did commit the murders and was insane at the time. Could a modern investigation prove him wrong? Stay with us.


Q: Why did a Florida jury say that an injured motorcyclist should get $3.6 million from the state?

A: Because the man crashed due to unmowed grass on the highway median. Under the Florida law that limits liability, the legislature will have to decide if he is to receive more than $100,000.



COSSACK: Police in Boston say they will not reopen the case of the Boston strangler unless they are forced to by a judge.

Jim, how long do you think it will take for the tests that you would like to be able to do, assuming you have the evidence, how long would it take for those tests to be completed?

STARRS: I don't like to put a timeline on anything like this, particularly if we are going to be as conscientious and thorough as I expect we will be. However, if we don't get physical evidence, such as some of the tools that were used to mutilate some of the victims and some of the clothing on the victims, but only documentary evidence, it can be done a lot more quickly, but it wouldn't be thorough and it wouldn't be complete, and it certainly wouldn't satisfy me, as a scientists, nor I'm sure the family as well.

COSSACK: Norman, you mentioned the fact that perhaps this is something that not a lot of time should be spent on, but in fact, doesn't this go hand in hand with what you said earlier, in terms of people who are on death row, and shouldn't be there, or are doing life sentences that shouldn't be there. Isn't this a way of sort of, in a way, the same kind of thing, if you are judging a person guilty who really isn't guilty?

ZALKIND: It is and it isn't. It is theoretically, but there is limited resources for these people, as we know about all the executions in Texas, which was revealed in the "New York Times" recently without adequate legal defense on a lot of them, and executed under the reign of Mr. Bush. And I think that we should just put our resources in other directions.

I don't have any problem with doing the investigation on this. And I think it would be great if it was shown that he was innocent, I think would help the family a bit, but I just think there are more important things facing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the other states.

And I agree with the Boston police, unless some judge orders them to reopen it, I don't think that they should be reopening this investigation that happened for crimes that were committed in the early '60s or even earlier.

And if the family wants to spend their money, I think that the state should give them the access to the evidence, and spend whatever money and time they want, and it will help in a little way to show that there are people out there that are innocent. But remember, Mr. DeSalvo was never charged with these murders. So obviously, although there was hysteria and there was media letting people believe that he was the murderer, he was never charged with the murders. And I think a number of years went by before he was killed in prison, and he still wasn't charged during all of those years. So, obviously, the police at that time must have had some doubts about whether or not he was guilty.

COSSACK: Norman, let me go to Elaine for a second.

Elaine, whether or not the police had doubts at that time, and it is true that he wasn't charged, it pretty much was assumed, I supposed, by police activities that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston strangler.

SHARP: Sure, I mean, he was publicly convicted, even though he was never charged or indicted and tried and convicted in a court of law.

COSSACK: In fact, the movie was made, wasn't it?

SHARP: That's right, and Tony Curtis played the role of Albert DeSalvo.

Just to address quickly Norman's point, again, I want to emphasize that nobody is being charged any money here. This is a completely pro bono, or free of charge, effort in order to solve -- try to solve by science with the help of James Starrs and his team an old question. This happens all the time, people do get falsely accused. And I think this case could be an amazing case study in just how that happens politically, legally and socially.

COSSACK: What do you think your chances are of getting the evidence turned over by a judge from the Boston police or the district attorney's office?

SHARP: Well, I don't understand the Boston Police Department's position, really, because they are going to try to invoke the investigatory materials exception to the Massachusetts public records exception, to the Massachusetts Public Records Act. But there really isn't any good foundation for that. We are not compromising law enforcement in any way, this is a 36-year-old case. There's no reason not to be open and free with the public, unless of course they have something that they are trying to hide. I think we've got a good chance getting it...

COSSACK: All right, we will keep an eye on this from BURDEN OF PROOF. But that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Later today on "TALKBACK LIVE": getting music off the Internet for free. Is it stealing or sharing? Find out how some musicians are fighting back. That's today at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, noon Pacific.



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