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William R. HORTON

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery - Rape
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 26, 1974
Date of birth: August 12, 1951
Victim profile: Joseph Fournier, 17 (gas station attendant)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in 1975. Released as part of a weekend furlough program on June 6, 1986, but did not return. Sentenced to two consecutives life terms plus 85 years on October 20, 1987
 
 

 
 

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 Pulitzer Prize.

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 federal level.

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 315).

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 without it."

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 debate.

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.

Post-election ramifications

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 1988.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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