William R. Horton
(born August 12, 1951 in Chesterfield, South Carolina) is a convicted
felon who was the subject of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program
that released him while serving a life sentence for murder, without the
possibility of parole, providing him the opportunity to commit armed
robbery and rape.
A political advertisement during the 1988 U.S.
Presidential race was critical of the Democratic nominee and
Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for his support of the program.
Criminal activity and incarceration
On October 26, 1974, in Lawrence, Massachusetts,
Horton and two accomplices robbed Joseph Fournier, a 17-year-old gas
station attendant, stabbed him 19 times, and left him in a trash can.
Fournier died from blood loss. Horton was convicted of murder, sentenced
to life imprisonment, and incarcerated at the Concord Correctional
Facility in Massachusetts.
On June 6, 1986, he was released as part of a weekend
furlough program but did not return.
On April 3, 1987 in Oxon Hill, Maryland, Horton twice
raped a local woman after pistol-whipping, knifing, binding, and gagging
her fiancÚ. He then stole the car belonging to the man he had assaulted,
but was later captured by police after a chase.
On October 20, Horton was sentenced in Maryland to
two consecutive life terms plus 85 years. The sentencing judge, Vincent
J Femia, refused to return Horton to Massachusetts, saying, "I'm not
prepared to take the chance that Mr. Horton might again be furloughed or
otherwise released. This man should never draw a breath of free air
again." This was reported in the October 1987 Reader's Digest.
Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was
the governor of Massachusetts at the time, and while he did not start
the furlough program, he had supported it as a method of criminal
rehabilitation. The State inmate furlough program was actually signed
into law by Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1972.
After the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that this
right extended to first-degree murderers, the Massachusetts legislature
quickly passed a bill prohibiting furloughs for such inmates.
However, in 1976, Governor Dukakis vetoed this bill.
The program remained in effect through the intervening term of governor
Edward J. King and was abolished during Dukakis's final term of office
on April 28, 1988. This abolition only occurred after the Lawrence Eagle
Tribune had run 175 stories about the furlough program and won a
Dukakis continued to argue that the program was 99%
effective; yet, as the Lawrence Eagle Tribune pointed out, no state
outside of Massachusetts, nor any federal program, would grant a
furlough to a prisoner serving life without parole, as Horton was.
Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign
The first person to mention the Massachusetts
furlough program in the 1988 presidential campaign was Al Gore. During a
debate at the Felt Forum sponsored by the New York Daily News, Gore took
issue with the furlough program. He did not, however, mention Horton by
name. He asked it in the form of a rhetorical question, asking Dukakis
whether or not he would extend Massachusetts-style furloughs to the
Dukakis' retort was, "The difference between you and
me is that I have run a criminal justice system. You haven't." But
Dukakis also quickly noted that the furlough program had been changed. (This
can be found in Jack Germond and Jules Witcover's book on the 1988
presidential campaign, "Whose Broad Stripes And Bright Stars?", on page
Republicans would pick up the Horton issue after
Dukakis clinched the nomination. In June of 1988, Republican candidate
George H.W. Bush seized on the Horton case, bringing it up repeatedly in
campaign speeches. Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, predicted that
"by the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household
name." Media consultant Roger Ailes was reported to remark "the only
question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or
The index card
In April 1988, Lee Atwater asked aide Jim Pinkerton
for negative research to defeat Dukakis. Pinkerton returned with reams
of material that Atwater told him to reduce to a 3x5 index card, telling
him, "I'm giving you one thing. You can use both sides of the 3x5 card."
Pinkerton discovered the furlough issue by watching the Felt Forum
On May 25, 1988, Republican consultants met in
Paramus, New Jersey holding a focus group of Democrats who had voted for
Ronald Reagan in 1984. After giving the focus group the material
Pinkerton provided on the index card, most of the voters switched from
favoring Dukakis to favoring Bush.
These focus groups convinced Atwater and the other
Republican consultants that they should 'go negative' against Dukakis.
Further information regarding the furlough came from aide Andy Card, a
Massachusetts native whom President George W. Bush later named as his
chief of staff during the Florida recount. (The preceding is featured in
"Whose Broad Stripes And Bright Stars?" pp. 159-161).
Jumping the gun
Although commercials about Willie Horton were not run
until the fall campaign, Vice-President Bush first mentioned Horton at
the Texas Republican convention on June 9, 1988.
The following week at the Illinois Republican
convention in Springfield, Bush began to press the argument against
Dukakis by declaring that Dukakis had let Horton loose to 'terrorize
innocent people' and continued support of the furlough program until the
Massachusetts legislature changed the law. Bush again mentioned Horton
at the National Sherrifs Association in Louisville, KY and declared
himself in favor of 'life without parole' for convicted murderers.
Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1988, Lee Atwater
attended a motorcyclists' convention in Luray, VA. Two couples were
talking about the Horton story as featured in Reader's Digest the
previous fall. Atwater joined them and never once mentioned who he was.
Later that night, a focus group in Alabama had turned completely against
Dukakis when presented the information about Horton's furlough. Atwater
used this occurrence to argue the necessity of pounding Dukakis about
the furlough issue (see Germond, pp. 159-165).
The fall campaign
Beginning on September 21, 1988, the Americans for
Bush arm of the National Security Political Action Committee, began
running a campaign ad entitled "Weekend Passes," using the Horton case
to attack Dukakis. The ad was produced by media consultant Larry
McCarthy, who had previously worked for Roger Ailes.
After clearing the ad with television stations,
McCarthy went back and added a menacing mug shot of Horton, who is
African-American. He called the image "every suburban mother's greatest
fear." The ad was run as an independent expenditure, separate from the
Bush campaign, which claimed, as is legally required, not to have had
any role in its production.
On October 5, a day after the "Weekend Passes" ad was
taken off the airwaves, and also the date of the infamous Bentsen-Quayle
debate, the Bush campaign ran its own ad, "Revolving Door," which also
attacked Dukakis over the weekend furlough program. While the
advertisement did not mention Horton or feature his photograph, it
depicted a variety of intimidating-looking men walking in and out of
prison through a revolving door.
The commercial was filmed at an actual state prison
in Draper, Utah, but the persons depicted - thirty in all, including
three African-Americans and two Hispanics - were all paid actors.
Attempting to counter-attack, Dukakis's campaign ran an ad about a
murderer named Angel Medrano who raped and killed a pregnant mother of
two after escaping from a federal correctional halfway house.
Unlike Horton, Medrano (who according to Arizona
Department of Corrections records, has been found guilty of 16 major and
eight minor violations of prison rules and conduct between 1982 and 1999
including assault with a weapon) was not already serving a life sentence
without the possibility of parole. Dukakis's ad ignored this fact and
displayed Medrano's name and showed his photograph.
According to Elizabeth Drew of "The New Yorker,"
several Hispanic congressmen in the Southwest asked Dukakis to delete
Medrano's name, which was done.
The controversy escalated when Vice Presidential
candidate Lloyd Bentsen and former Democratic candidate and civil rights
leader Jesse Jackson called the ad racist.
In 1990, the Ohio Democratic Party and a group called
"Black Elected Democrats of Ohio" filed a complaint with the Federal
Elections Commission alleging that NSPAC had coordinated or cooperated
with the Bush campaign in airing the ad, which would make it an illegal
in-kind campaign contribution.
Investigation by the FEC, including deposition of
officials from both organizations, revealed indirect connections between
McCarthy and the Bush campaign (such as his having previously worked for
Ailes), but found no direct evidence of wrongdoing, and the
investigation reached an impasse and was eventually closed with no
finding of any violation of campaign finance laws.
On April 18, 1996, Horton was transferred to the
Maryland House of Correction Annex, a maximum security prison in Jessup,
Maryland, where he remains today.
The name Willie Horton has become synonymous with
negative campaigning. There were more references to Horton in the 1992
campaign between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush than there were in