On March 14, 1981, Deborah H. Smith a white 27-year-old operating room nurse at Beth Israel Hospital was stabbed multiple times and raped in the middle of the day by two black men. They were seen running from her apartment with her stereo receiver. Smith who had graduated from Skidmore College and whose father was a prominent doctor lived 293-295 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay. As the men were fleeing she had dialed 911 in a desperate attempt to be helped. By the time she reached City Hospital she had died.
A week later one paper noted: “The murder has dominated local news since the day it occurred.”
Beth Israel offered a reward for any information on the identity of the culprits. Police immediately formed a group of six homicide detectives and eight detectives from the burglary task force to investigate. They quickly achieved results. Those who did it were in custody within three days on Tuesday. But not everyone was happy.
According to a newspaper article representatives of the black community and the National Organization of Women charged the media by giving Smith’s murder extensive coverage “had exhibited unfairness and insensitivity” to people living in the poorer sections of the city. They suggested a different standard of justice applied to the murder of “affluent whites than to less well-off, usually black victims” adding “the press reinforces this perception by the manner in which it covers such crimes.”
The Boston police denied they had a double standard. They pointed to their work in the 1979 cases. Some others also pointed to those. Rev. Bruce Wall wrongly complained it took police too long then to establish a task force. As we’ve seen they were hard at work immediately after the first murders and had the equivalent of a task force within ten days. Dave O’Brian a media critic for the Boston Phoenix wrongly stated the murder of Smith “created more of a stir in the community than did all of the 1979 murders of 12 black women combined.” We’ve seen that is untrue.
It became accepted by the media and others that 12 black women were murdered. The number was eleven. The confusion came when one headline read: ‘Woman identified in 12th murder.” The first paragraph read: “the 11th black women to be murdered in Boston since Jan. 20 and the 12th woman murdered in the city since that date.”
The headline became the fact even though one of the 12 victims in late April was Faye Polner, 18, from Newton. Her body was found behind the Joseph E. Lee School in Dorchester. She was white. Her murder received the same or even less coverage than any of the black women. It was never solved.
The Deborah H. Smith case was solved quickly by the Boston police. Both men who were involved in those crimes against her were convicted; one made a deal to plea to second degree murder and to testify against the other. He pinned the rape and murder on the other guy; the other guy said it was the state’s witness who committed those acts. The district attorney has no way of knowing who really did it so he goes with one who gets there first opting to believe him.
Those complaining about the coverage conflated the role of the media with the police. Some suggested all crimes should be treated equally and the press coverage was excessive; another said the police response only relates to the media’s attention to the crime; the spokesman from NOW said her organization was “distressed to see the lack of coverage, by both the media and the police ,of attacks on women who do not live at fashionable addresses”. . . . No one pointed to any specific instance of this; pointing to the murder of the 11 black women would only give lie to their positions since it showed the opposite.
Interestingly the Boston police professed to investigate all murders in the same way which appeared to be the case. It turned out that the media that admitted it had the bias against black victims. It was the media to whom black lives mattered less. (continued in part 10)