W illie Horton. The name is enough to make a politician blanch. Ever since 1988, when the George H. W. Bush presidential campaign machine wielded the Horton horror story against his Democratic rival, the threat of being “Willie Horton’ed” has shaped the politics of crime and punishment. “The ghost of Willie Horton has loomed over any conversation about sentencing reform for over 30 years,” says Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., co-sponsor of one such proposal.
Now, with crime down and the excesses of the criminal justice system under bipartisan attack, some believe the ghost has been expelled. Upcoming election seasons will put that theory to the test.
How did a single sadistic home invasion — one of many senseless crimes in the violent 1980’s — reshape the politics of criminal justice for a generation? It began with a 30-second television ad.
A political action committee with ties to the Bush campaign paid for only a modest, month-long run of “Weekend Passes.” But Bush mentioned Horton relentlessly on the campaign trail, and it wasn’t long before Horton was all over the news. “The Bush campaign knew what it was doing,” wrote Baltimore Sun political reporter Roger Simon. “Mention furloughs in a speech and that got reported. Keep mentioning it, give the press a name, and you set the press in motion.”
Subsequent decades saw a frenzy of prison-building, sentence-lengthening, tough-on-crime one-upmanship, fueled as much by politics as by any demonstrable public safety benefit. “Clearly the Willie Horton ad was a very important lesson for politicians,” says Ronald Weich, who worked at the US Sentencing Commission in 1988 and later as legal counsel for several senators. “They learned a bad lesson: not to go out on a limb.”
T oday William Horton is inmate #189-1821 at Jessup Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison just south of Baltimore. He’s 63, tall and lanky, with long fingers and big brown eyes behind black plastic bifocals. There’s no sign of the Afro or wild beard that terrified the nation in 1988. Just close-cut salt-and-pepper hair and goatee. The average age at JCI is just under 40, so Horton is something of a prison elder, “an older guy in the system who feels out of place,” says a friend of Horton’s. He talked to The Marshall Project during a visit and a two-hour phone interview.
The photo in the “Weekend Passes” ad — in which Horton had the wild look of a caged animal — was taken after he had spent several weeks in solitary confinement, he says, recovering from gunshot wounds and the multiple resulting surgeries. “I would have been scared of me too,” he said.
As he has for 28 years, Horton insisted he is innocent — that he never killed or raped, but was just in the wrong places at the wrong times.
Horton is not always the most reliable narrator. In the years since he became a household name, the events of that time have become a bit scrambled in his telling; he says, for instance, that the famous ad first aired during the runup to his trial, prejudicing the jury pool, though in fact his trial was in 1987 and the ad aired in 1988. He has a way of deflecting blame for the wrong turns of his life — right down to a traffic stop in what would become a pivotal moment in his story. (“The police pulled us over and said that I ran a stoplight,” he told me. “Actually I didn’t run a stoplight. It was only a yellow warning light, to tell you to be cautious or slow down, or yield to the right of way.”)
The last few years, Horton says, he has re-committed to the Christianity of his childhood. He was baptised at the prison three years ago:
“I don’t mean to sound like I came in here and became a Holy Saint,” he says. “Although I’m trying to be a better person in my life, to have God in my life — because I’ve tried everything else.”
A s a kid in rural South Carolina, Horton heard stories about his father’s stints on the chain gang. Horton’s maternal grandmother used to warn him not to end up in jail like his dad. He did, soon enough — as a teenager he served time for assault.
Eventually he wandered north to Lawrence, MA, a former mill town struggling to find its place in the post-war economy. Horton’s girlfriend was finishing a cosmetology degree and offered to support him, he says, if he wanted to go to college. But by then he had found a more exciting calling. In Lawrence, he and his three friends “were four of the top drug dealers going around that we knew of. We pretty much was it.”
In October 1974, Horton was driving home from a party with two friends when someone—they don’t agree on who—suggested they rob a gas station. The attendant, 17-year-old Joseph Fournier, was later found dead in a trash can, stabbed 19 times. The high school student had been working evenings and weekends to save money for his first car. The men made off with $276.37.
Horton insists he waited in the car and did not know his friends planned to kill anyone. A co-defendant said he waited in the car while Horton and the third man went in.
Under the law, it doesn’t matter. The “joint enterprise” doctrine says that anyone participating in a crime that ends in murder is equally culpable. All three were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.
I n the mid- to late-80s, all 50 states had furlough programs. These passes allowed inmates to leave the prison for periods of time ranging from a few hours to several weeks, depending on their sentence and their behavior in prison; while in the community, they could visit family, look for work, or participate in religious activities. Almost 10 percent of state and federal prisoners received a furlough in 1987. Nationally, murderers served an average of eight years before they were paroled or commuted, so furloughs were, in the toolkit of a previous generation, an uncontroversial proposition. They offered incentives for good behavior behind bars and a good way for inmates to reacclimate to the life they would almost certainly return to outside of prison. “Use of furloughs for prisoners in the U.S. is widespread, successful and relatively problem free,” the editor of a magazine for corrections professionals told the New York Times in 1988.
When we talked to him in his office at Northeastern University, where he is a professor of politics, Dukakis said furloughs were a sensible means of protecting public safety.
Dukakis points out that one of the most liberal furlough programs at the time was the one in the federal prison system under President Reagan and Vice President Bush. And under California’s program when Reagan was governor, two prisoners murdered people while out on furlough. When critics challenged the program, Reagan defended it with a vehemence that seems impossible to fathom today. “More than 20,000 already have these passes,” he said after the first murder, “and this was the only case of this kind, the only murder.” California was “leading the nation in rehabilitation,” he said. “Obviously you can't be perfect.”
But on what would turn out to be his last furlough, in June 1986, Horton made a decision that would end up defining the 1988 presidential election — and the politics of crime for the three decades that followed.
Trying to get away from the police, Horton crashed the car his nephew had loaned him and took off on foot. Via stolen cars and buses he made his way to Florida, where he worked in construction. After about a year he lost that job and moved north to stay with friends in Baltimore.
On April 3, 1987, in a small, working-class Maryland suburb near D.C., an intruder broke into the home of Clifford Barnes and Angela Miller. Barnes, a sales manager for a car dealership, was bound to a pole in the basement and knifed over the course of several hours. When Miller, a bookkeeper at a development firm and Barnes’s fiancee, arrived home, she was raped multiple times at gunpoint. Eventually Barnes escaped out the basement window and ran to get help. He never got a look at his assailant’s face, he told police, since the man was wearing a stocking cap. But the intruder had taken off in Barnes’s Camaro, loaded with items stolen from the house.
A short time later, police identified the Camaro on a nearby road. After a high-speed chase, the Camaro stopped and Horton emerged, pointing a handgun at police. Horton took off on foot amidst a barrage of gunfire. He was captured, bleeding, in the yard of an adjacent house, with gunshot wounds to the abdomen and arm.
Two days later, police identified Horton as an escapee from a Massachusetts prison. The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune began running what would eventually amount to almost 200 stories over the course of the following year, criticizing the Department of Corrections, Governor Dukakis, and the furlough program. Rep. Newt Gingrich, the future house speaker, read each installment aloud on the House floor.
“The question everyone wants answered is how a cold-blooded murderer ever got out in the first place,” the paper wrote in April 1987.
A DOC spokesperson was quoted as responding, “Clearly a regrettable and tragic mistake has been made by this department...There is no taking away from what happened in Maryland, but William Horton is an exception to the rule.”
A few weeks later, a group of lifers at Massachusetts’s Norfolk prison wrote a prescient letter to lawmakers. “We ask that you treat (Horton's) case as it is, which is an individual case and does not and should not reflect on the...people who have accepted the responsibility...and are serving their time in a very positive and productive manner,” the letter said.
In a phone interview with the Eagle-Tribune, the group’s president added, “We fear Horton's actions have condemned the whole bunch of us as far as furloughs go.”
Inmates blamed Horton for the end of the furloughs and work releases. “I know the people back home in Boston, the inmates, are very angry,” Horton says. “Actually I got a letter from a guy — He basically said, ‘man, don’t come back to Boston.’” Twenty-five years on, however, Horton gets more solidarity than vitriol. “I’m surprised that he isn’t scapegoated by the men inside the prison, that he’s not ostracized,” says Horton’s friend, who asked not to be named. “I asked some of the men about that,” she continues. “They say, no, he’s one of them, and if it wasn’t him it would have been someone else.”
The Massachusetts furlough problem had already been in the news for months when Dukakis and Al Gore sparred in a Democratic primary debate in April 1988. “If you were elected President, would you advocate a similar program for federal penitentiaries?” Gore asked—“to hoots and laughter from the audience,” The Los Angeles Times reported. Gore didn’t mention Horton by name, but it didn’t take long for Bush’s political strategist Lee Atwater and his team of opposition researchers to see a golden opportunity.
Atwater was a master of the Machiavellian campaign. “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate,” he famously said. Horton’s mug shot hung on the wall at Bush campaign headquarters.
“The Horton case is one of those gut issues that are value issues, particularly in the South,” Atwater told Baltimore Sun columnist Roger Simon during the campaign. “And if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win.”
Although Republicans insisted they’d have been just as happy if their villain were white, the ad seemed to fit into a long tradition of playing to white voters’ primal fears about black criminals, particularly those who target white women. Atwater fiercely denied that the menacing image of Horton was an appeal to racial animus, especially in the South. Still, the Horton offensive was reminiscent of Republicans’ famous 1960s “Southern Strategy,” specifically designed to capture white voters disaffected by Democrats’ commitment to civil rights for African-Americans, without ever saying so directly. In a 1981 interview, Atwater candidly explained this approach to Case Western Reserve University political scientist Alexander Lamis.
Twenty years later, a similar strategy was at work in the Bush campaign: By using menacing images of the African-American Horton, absent any explicit mention of his race, the campaign constructed a fortress of plausible deniability.
When Jesse Jackson finally became the first public persona to call the ad racist, followed quickly by Dukakis’s running mate Lloyd Bentsen, Bush denounced the accusation as “some desperation kind of move. There isn't any racism,” he told reporters. “It's absolutely ridiculous.”
The campaign further insulated itself from these charges by claiming it had had nothing to do with the “Weekend Passes” ad. Bush was mentioning Horton by name almost daily on the stump, but the ad itself had been produced by an “independent” political action committee.
“Officially the campaign has to disavow themselves from me,” said the PAC’s founder Elizabeth Fediay. “Unofficially, I hear they’re thrilled about what we’re doing.”
D ukakis initially resisted changes to the furlough program. Furloughs were an essential tool for managing the behavior of prison inmates, he said, and a good way for them to “make their way through the system,” be considered for commutation, and prepare for life outside prison. After the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune series won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, Dukakis acceded to a freeze, and then an outright ban, on furloughs for first-degree lifers. He signed the lifer ban bill in April of 1988.
Inmates and staff in Massachusetts prisons at the time describe how dozens of lifers who had moved, over the course of years, from maximum, to medium, to minimum—even to work-release programs — were gathered up in the middle of the night and brought back to more secure facilities. “They went out at midnight and scooped up all these lifers to get them back behind the walls, in case any of them had any mind to take off,” says Greg Diatchenko, who had recently begun serving a life sentence in Massachusetts at that time. “Some of these lifers were out there for many many years, these first degree-ers, hoping for commutation. Getting furloughs and everything. Those guys kept their hopes up, even after all that, that the political climate would die down, and they would eventually work their way out. We were told it would just be a short while. Maybe a year or two, before the political climate changed and guys would get back out.”
The Horton ad caught the country at a time of rising crime, fear verging on panic, and a political climate in which Republicans and Democrats competed to prove their tough-on-crime credentials. In subsequent years a dozen states eliminated parole, which had been a longstanding way for inmates to earn release with rehabilitation and good behavior. Work release, commutations, conjugal visits, furloughs — the myriad release valves that had for years served as both incentive and reward for repentance and change — all were eliminated or severely curtailed.
In a 1989 speech, George H. W. Bush told the nation, “We need more jails, more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors” — and we got them. (Then-Senator Joe Biden boasted that Democrats took an even harder line than Republicans: “One of my objectives, quite frankly, is to lock Willie Horton up in jail,” he said.) President Clinton picked up where Bush left off — his 1994 crime bill not only fueled a prison-building boom, it ended Pell grants for prisoners, decimating prison education programs around the country.
One of the first things William Horton said to me, when we first talked on the phone in September of 2014, was that he wanted to apologize to Dukakis for “the role I played in him losing the election.”
Dukakis just laughs.
Lee Atwater, the man who turned William Horton into “Willie Horton,” also apologized — sort of.
“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood,” Atwater wrote in Life magazine just weeks before his death, at age 40, of a brain tumor. “In 1988,” he continued, “fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.”
There were rumors that Atwater sent Horton a personal letter of apology. Horton says he doesn’t remember that, but concedes he received so much mail during that time, it could have easily gotten lost or thrown away. He says he wouldn’t have put too much stock in an apology, anyway.
C rime used to top the short list of issues that voters cared most about. With crime at historic lows, voter concern has turned to the economy, ISIS, and Obamacare, among other issues. During the 2014 midterm election, crime didn’t even make the list of 13 issues Gallup asked voters to rank. This shift in priorities has allowed a few politicians to push the envelope on criminal justice reform with limited fear of political reprisal.
And “soft on crime” no longer seems to be the dependable political cudgel it once was. That’s not to say that politicians don’t still try it: “Willie Horton”–style attack ads have made appearances in the last several elections. However, it appears that few of them worked — and some even backfired.
Democratic incumbent Mark Begich suffered in the 2014 Alaska Senate race when he ran an inflammatory attack ad linking challenger Dan Sullivan with a rape and murder. As Attorney General, the ad claimed, Sullivan “let a lot of sex offenders get off with light sentences.” The family of the victims in that case sent Begich a cease and desist letter after he refused to take the ad down. “You are tearing this family apart to the point that your ad was so shocking to them they now want to permanently leave the state as quickly as possible,” their lawyer said. Begich was criticized in both the local and national press, and in the end the ad may have been part of why he lost a very close race.
The National Republican Congressional Committee was widely condemned during the 2014 midterm elections when it ran a race-baiting television spot linking Nebraska Democratic House candidate Brad Ashford with Nikko Jenkins, a schizophrenic black serial killer.
Another ad warned that “liberal Brad Ashford is dangerously wrong on crime.” Ashford won.
In 2010, a provocative mailer went out to North Carolina voters with pictures of two death row inmates under the heading, “Thanks to Hugh Holliman, death row inmates could leave prison early and move in next door.”
Holliman’s opponent, Rayne Brown, won by a large margin, but the ad was ultimately an embarrassment to the state Republican party. Its chair was forced to apologize to Holliman when it emerged that Holliman’s daughter had been raped and murdered in the 1980s and Holliman had witnessed her killer’s execution. One of the ad’s biggest ironies didn’t arise until later. Henry McCollum — the African-American prisoner whose picture was captioned with “Murder First Degree” and “Child Rape” — was exonerated alongside his brother in 2014; the two had collectively spent 60 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
Last year a local Colorado op-ed mocked candidate Bob Beauprez for a television ad painting his opponent, Governor John Hickenlooper, as soft on crime. “Beauprez is asking why scary prisoners who had served their sentences were being released. Maybe because they've, well, served their sentences,” wrote columnist Mike Littwin. “Yes, there are some scary convicts. But look around. This is not Willie Horton time.”
Or is it? Even as the country seems to have reached a tentative consensus that our prison system is broken — as crime rates drop and inflammatory tough-on-crime rhetoric is less in fashion — could a single high-profile incident take us back? When asked that question, Dukakis didn’t hesitate.