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The Case of the Boston Strangler: Was Albert DeSalvo the Boston Strangler?

Aired August 14, 2001 - 12:30   ET



CASEY SHERMAN, NEPHEW OF VICTIM: Albert DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler. And we hope through DNA testing that we can prove that fact once and for all with no arguments.



JERRY LEONE, MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERAL CRIMINAL BUREAU: We're now at a phase where we need something from them, and frankly, it's put up or shut up. It is the only course of action that we can take now to try to obtain some type of result.



RICHARD DESALVO, BROTHER OF ALBERT DESALVO: I honestly swear on a stack of Bibles that there's no way in the world that he was the Boston Strangler.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: The Boston Strangler molested and strangled 13 women in the early 1960s. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Was Albert DeSalvo the Boston Strangler?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Thirty-seven years after the killings stopped, the case of the Boston Strangler has yet to be solved.

In 1965, Albert DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler, but no physical evidence connected him to the crimes and he was never prosecuted or convicted for them. Now DeSalvo died in prison at the hands of another inmate in 1973. The case was reopened in 1999 in response to requests by the family of Albert DeSalvo and the family of Mary Sullivan, who was the strangler's last victim. Those families do not believe that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler. They have asked for physical evidence that they hope will exonerate DeSalvo. Now the families maintain that the real perpetrator remains at large.

So joining us today to discuss the latest on this unsolved case, from Boston, Albert DeSalvo's nephew, Timothy DeSalvo. We are also joined in Boston by Wendy Murphy, a former Massachusetts prosecutor. And here in Washington, Megan Healy (ph), James Starrs, professor of -- professor of forensic science, and Erin Brudwick (ph). And in just a few moments, we'll be joined by Elaine Whitfield Sharp, attorney for the DeSalvo and Sullivan families.

I want to start with you, Tim, why is it that you believe that your uncle, Albert DeSalvo, was not the Boston Strangler?

TIMOTHY DESALVO, NEPHEW OF ALBERT DESALVO: There's many reasons why I believe it. A brief one is there's so many prosecutors or I should say police at the time who even believed that he wasn't for the fact that he mentioned to my father that he wasn't. Most of the people investigating the crimes at the time believed that he wasn't and they were turned away from it. When the -- when the confession from his attorney and my uncle was brought into the light, they stopped everybody else investigating the real suspects of the case.

COSSACK: Tim, why is it that you think that they were so willing to accept the fact that your uncle was the Boston Strangler even though there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crimes? And that there -- apparently there was in his confession, there were things that were just not correct?

DESALVO: Well, again, the hysteria at the time was such that -- I mean I can only put myself at that -- at that time -- timeframe when, you know, they wanted to shut this down. It was -- it was something that for one, an attorney could see there was going to be a lot of money made out of -- at the outset of somebody confessing to it. I'm sure prosecutors, the task force, wanted to shut it down. Somebody put a situation together, my uncle was involved in it, and it gave them what they wanted, closure, but not the correct closure.

COSSACK: But, Tim, why would your uncle have confessed...

DESALVO: Well,...

COSSACK: ... if he -- if he didn't do it?

DESALVO: ... we know that from breaking and enterings he had -- he had a certain amount of -- he had a certain amount of cases that were pending on him that would give him, what we understood now, was three to five years in prison. He was explained to by his attorney that, oh no, you're going to be in there for the rest of your life so you might as well benefit from this. So this would have not only helped his family because he would no longer be able to provide for them. So this was money to provide for his family, and hopefully, he thought, was a better chance of getting into a hospital to evaluate his breaking and entering problems. And those are the things that he was hopeful for which never did pan out. And you know, to me, that's the main reasons why he wanted the confession.

COSSACK: Tim, his lawyer, as I recall, was F. Lee Bailey. DESALVO: Yes, unfortunately it was.

COSSACK: Are you saying that it was F. Lee Bailey who told him to go ahead and confess to this because this would be a way of earning money?

DESALVO: That's my belief.

COSSACK: And how do you -- why do you believe that?

DESALVO: Well, again, you've mentioned, too, that there was nobody that had any information that -- or link to my uncle. There was no evidence -- no physical evidence. There was nothing on any of the scenes that locked him in. There's no way that my uncle could just step on a plate and there is supposed to be police enforcement there to prevent people from just erroneously saying, hey, I did this, I did that.

You know he made a confession but the attorney general, the police are there to make sure that what he says is correct, not just taken on a whim and say, hey, let's just close this down. So the only way that I could see this developing into what it -- what it did was his attorney had to allow certain events to happen. And again, with Ed Brooks, they allowed this whole conspiracy to take place.

COSSACK: Ed Brooks was the -- was the attorney general or the DA?

DESALVO: The attorney general...


DESALVO: ... of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at the time.

COSSACK: Of Massachusetts.


COSSACK: Now, was it your understanding, your uncle thought by confessing and saying, look, I am the Boston -- the notorious Boston Strangler that therefore he would be able to write a book or receive some money about his story and that's how he was going to provide for his family?

DESALVO: Exactly,...

COSSACK: All right.

DESALVO: ... which never did happen.

COSSACK: All right. Wendy -- all right.

We're going to take a break on BURDEN OF PROOF. When we come back, we're going to continue our discussion about Albert DeSalvo. Was he the Boston Strangler, a case that's never been solved. Stay with us. LEGAL BRIEF: A South Carolina prison guard pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of intercourse with an inmate, for his sexual relationship with Susan Smith. Lieutenant Houston Cagle could receive a maximum of 10 years in prison for each charge. Smith is serving a life sentence for drowning her two sons in 1994.


COSSACK: In 1965, Albert DeSalvo confessed that he was the Boston Strangler, but his family, and the family of the Boston Strangler's last victim, are convinced that that confession was false. So they want to do their own forensic testing on physical evidence collected by the police and they subpoenaed the Massachusetts attorney general to get the evidence. So should this evidence be handed over? And what can these tests really prove?

Joining us now is Elaine Whitfield Sharp, who is representing both the Sullivan family and the DeSalvo family and has brought a lawsuit against Tom Reilly, who is the attorney general of the state of California to get the evidence.



COSSACK: Elaine, good morning. Tell us what's -- tell us what's happening with your lawsuit, and what do you want from it?

SHARP: We're back in the state court now after having been in the federal court for about five months. Under the State Court Discovery Order, we filed a subpoena for the semen slides, six of which were taken from the crime scene of Mary Sullivan. The attorney general in response to that and the Boston Police Department in response to that subpoena filed a written objection, as they are permitted to do so. And procedurally where we're at right now is we've filed a motion to compel production of the slides pursuant to the legal rights that we believe we have under the lawsuit.

And it's important to realize that we have a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit here and that DNA is clearly information. And that in order to avoid producing the semen slides, the government must prove that there's a reason not to do so.

COSSACK: All right. Elaine, let me interrupt you a second. Why won't the cops turn over the evidence to you?

SHARP: Well, they're claiming, Roger, that it's an open and active investigation, but they haven't provided any factual support for that whatsoever. And indeed what they have said publicly most recently is that if Richard DeSalvo doesn't give a blood sample, then the investigation is over. That would tend to suggest to me that it never was an open and active investigation. It's just a move by Tom Reilly to gain a political advantage, to be the one who announces to the public the results of the testing. But we're not willing to let that happen. We don't want to put this case into the hands of politicians, we want it in the hands of scientists.

COSSACK: All right. Let's talk to Wendy Murphy.

Wendy, why shouldn't the police turn this over? You know it's -- I -- isn't it kind of a tough argument to make that it's an open and active investigation when he confessed, well, I think it's like almost 40 years ago and for 40 years, at least in most people's minds, Albert DeSalvo has been the Boston Strangler?

WENDY MURPHY, FORMER MASSACHUSETTS PROSECUTOR: Well, Roger, that's not the only argument they're making. They're not just saying it's an open and active investigation, they're also saying that it's not necessarily clear under the law that the family owns this physical forensic evidence. I mean at some point when evidence is removed, even if it originally belonged to a body part and that person is represented by an attorney, once it becomes evidence, it doesn't necessarily become or revert back to the family's property just because of passage of time.

And let's remember what we're talking about. We're talking about a very small piece of forensic evidence that the attorney general, to his credit, here in Massachusetts has said I'm happy to test this. This is an unusual step for an attorney general to take reopening an old case 35 years past and being willing, at this point, to say I'll spend money, resources and so on sending this to a reputable lab. And there aren't that many reputable labs in this country that are capable of retesting this stuff at this point in time.

But this attorney general, Tom Reilly, is willing to do that. And all he's saying to Elaine is let us do our test. Give us a comparison sample. We have no interest in the outcome at this point. There's no reason Tom Reilly wouldn't want to be able to say at this point, you know what, it wasn't DeSalvo. He has no interest in proving or disapproving that it was him. So all he really wants to do is get a sample from one of the DeSalvo relatives, compare it to a tiny bit of stuff they still have, which to their credit they were able to find after all these years, and Elaine and her, the people she's representing, are saying, no, we don't want to give that to you. They're, in a sense, holding Tom Reilly hostage, using as leverage the fact they do have the only comparison sample in the brother of Albert DeSalvo available that will give us any definitive answer

And I want to ask Elaine, you know why not just let Tom do it? You know he's offered to do it in a reputable lab, there aren't that many. He's agreed to share the results with you. And if the results come back inconclusive or they don't match Albert DeSalvo, he has also agreed to save a piece of this tiny bit of evidence that's -- that will be leftover for you in the event you want to do your testing after the fact. Why not let him go first? You have nothing to lose. And you're grand standing and making wild accusations about his political motivations without justifications.

SHARP: Well, let me answer the question before you get into any personal accusations about grand standing, Wendy. Let me answer your accusations. First of all, 37 years ago Ed Brooks centralized information in this case, took over the case, prohibited the public from seeing the confessions of Albert DeSalvo. Thirty-seven years ago, politics got involved in this case. Today what we want is politics to be out. We want the scientists to be in.

We -- you know Tom Reilly wasn't even involved in this case, had absolutely no interest in this case, didn't want anything to do with this case, and all of a sudden when Jim Starrs, who is here today, exhumed the body of Mary Sullivan, he suddenly saw the media ticket that was involved in this case, then he wants to get involved.

MURPHY: That's not -- and you're misstating the facts.

SHARP: This is about integrity of...

MURPHY: Tom Reilly has been involved...

SHARP: No, no.

MURPHY: ... since November of 1999...

SHARP: Well since when do you work for Tom Reilly and since when are you on the inside track?

MURPHY: ... simply because he thought this was an important public issue. I'm telling you that I know, having spoken to the office, he's been involved since November of '99.

SHARP: Since when does his family...


COSSACK: All right.

SHARP: ... get information...

COSSACK: All right.

SHARP: ... from Tom Reilly...

COSSACK: OK, wait, wait -- wait -- please wait.


MURPHY: ... refuse to give him what he needs to be able to prove your point. I don't understand why you're being so sinister about it. Just give him the sample.

COSSACK: All right, Wendy.

MURPHY: If you don't like the results...

COSSACK: Wendy,...

MURPHY: ... do your own tests.

COSSACK: All right. Elaine, Wendy, I've got to call a halt to this because they're making me take a break. Not that you two don't do a great job arguing for your side, but it's now time for me to take a break.

Up next, how can families convince the DA's office to resurrect decade's old cases? And when we come back, let's talk to this Professor James Starrs who did all this work and find out what he has to say. Stay with us.

QUESTION: A federal judge ruled Monday that an artist is free to use what image in sexually explicit photographs?


ANSWER: A Barbie. Mattel Inc. had sued artist Tom Forsythe, claiming trademark and intellectual property rights.

COSSACK: It's been 37 years since the Boston Strangler killed his last victim, and yet the case remains unsolved. Now the investigation was reopened in 1999 in response to requests by the DeSalvo and the Mary Sullivan family.

All right. Professor Starrs, you are assisting in the -- in this case. You are assisting the DeSalvo-Sullivan side. Tell us what you did.

JIM STARRS, PROFESSOR OF FORENSIC SCIENCE: I'm entirely impartial. I'm assisting them as an impartial objective scientist.

COSSACK: All right.

STARRS: We exhumed Mary Sullivan in October of 2000, and we are examining -- continuing the examination of her remains.

But in response to Wendy, and her apology before the attorney general's office, we have asked for the opportunity for our team members to view the testing that's going on or has gone on in Boston. The door is closed to us entirely.

COSSACK: So they won't even allow you to go to view what they intend to do?

STARRS: They won't even photograph, they won't even videotape what they're doing so that we can then look and see if they're doing it properly and correctly. They are -- it's a complete closed door obstructionist policy on their part, which is entirely unscientific. Science is supposed to be open and forthcoming with respect to the work they do and the results they achieve. This is not the way to...


MURPHY: But you know, Roger, that's unfair. That is unfair. This is an unusual case and to request that you be available to watch and monitor the testing is unprecedented. Where you're talking about a guy who's not a -- there's no suspect here. I mean if this were an open criminal case where there's a suspect on the block, his lawyer wants to monitor the proceedings because he's entitled to due process and fair trial rights, then I totally agree with Dr. Starrs. Absolutely, he'd have the right to be there and to monitor. But we're talking about a 37-year-old case, where to let a private person's lawyers and scientists in to monitor the proceedings and to challenges and scrutinize without justification, I mean there's absolutely no basis for this criticism.

COSSACK: Wendy -- Wendy -- Wendy -- Wendy.

SHARP: Wait a minute.

COSSACK: Let me -- let me -- let me jump in here a second.

MURPHY: Wait until the results are out before you complain.

COSSACK: Let me jump in here a second. Wendy, I know you and I know you are a person who like -- a lover of justice. So having prefaced you that way, why is it any less important for people to be involved in a process which 37 years later could prove someone innocent who has been called the Boston Strangler, a horrible thing to be called, why is any less important so that scientists should not be allowed to merely observe?

MURPHY: Well, let me say this, Roger. First of all, who called him the Boston Strangler? He did it himself. This isn't like the big bad government falsely labeling somebody the Boston Strangler.

COSSACK: But does that really matter?

MURPHY: No, yes, because let me -- let me put it to you this way,...

COSSACK: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) really matter, move all the...


MURPHY: Roger, you're a journalist. You're a journalist, Roger,...

STARRS: If I can inject, we're willing to have them...

MURPHY: ... what if I, a private person, call you up and say, Roger, I know you're going to be talking to that confidential source. You know I'd just like to watch how you interview that source because I want to make sure you ask the questions the right way.

SHARP: Can we just cut to the quick here and get to the point?

MURPHY: We're talking about monitoring a scientific process that nobody involved in this case can honestly say...

COSSACK: All right.

MURPHY: ... will not be fair or objective.

STARRS: The process is going to be destructive.


MURPHY: If they want to complain after the fact, I'll be here to...


SHARP: ... Information Act...

COSSACK: All right, Elaine -- Elaine, hold on one second. I want to let Professor Starrs respond and then I'm going to go to you, Elaine.

Go ahead, Professor Starrs.

STARRS: The process is going to be destructive. There's no way for us to go back in point of time after they've done their work and validate what they've done...

MURPHY: They're saving you a piece of the evidence.

STARRS: ...unless we can do it now while they're doing it.

MURPHY: They're saving you a piece of the evidence.

STARRS: In addition, we're open. The Boston police can come down to my laboratory at any time and review what we're doing as long as they wear gloves and masks and so on to make sure there's no contamination. Why can't they be equally willing...


COSSACK: Wendy, I...

STARRS: ... to let us do it up there?

COSSACK: Wendy, I want to -- I want to let Elaine jump in now.

Elaine, please go ahead.

SHARP: I know Tim's chopping at the bit to say something here but just quickly, this is a Freedom of Information Act. Any citizen can request this information unless, of course, the attorney general proves that's it's an open and active investigation, which they've not yet done so. Any citizen is entitled to this information, they don't have to justify it.

COSSACK: All right.

MURPHY: Then why are we fighting over this?

SHARP: Information...


COSSACK: All right, then let me let Tim come say something, too. All right, Tim, go ahead, I understand you want to get in -- Tim.

DESALVO: Well, it's Wendy's point about, you know, why is this so important? If her last name was DeSalvo, I think she would see how important it is to our family. We have to live with it. And it's not because of my uncle made this accusation, this should not have been allowed to happen and the people who were in place to prevent it didn't allow it to happen and there was financial reasons involved. That's why we don't want it to happen again.

MURPHY: But, Tim, I'm not...

DESALVO: I don't care if it's 10 years or 40 years.

MURPHY: I'm not saying it's not important. I respect what you're saying, Tim, I really do. And I also should comment that not all the DeSalvo family members, not all the Sullivan family members agree with your position.


SHARP: Yes,...

DESALVO: Yes -- yes, they do.

SHARP: ... that.

MURPHY: There are some family members on both sides that think this is an outrage and a disgrace to both families. But let me just say this, the AG has agreed to save a piece of the evidence to give it to you for whatever you want to do with it after they do their initial testing. Why is that so offensive to you? Just let them do it.

SHARP: It isn't offensive. It's...


MURPHY: Complain about it after the fact, then do your own testing.

SHARP: It isn't -- it's risk to science...

COSSACK: All right. All right, Elaine, 10 seconds.

SHARP: ... because what if the piece of evidence that the AG analyzes -- and Jim Starrs should address this -- and it happens to be the best piece of evidence available and we're left with the less tenable evidence?

MURPHY: You're making that up, Elaine.

COSSACK: I'm afraid...

SHARP: I'm not making it up. I'm saying...

COSSACK: All right, you guys, I'm calling a halt to this program because that's all the time we have today.

Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching.

Join us again tomorrow for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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