Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Rhode Island Monster

So many times we hear of states not doing enough to keep convicted killers behind bars. It's the story we never want to hear; knowing that something could have been done to stop someone from being free to commit another crime, but wasn't, and an innocent person's life was lost.

I came across this article on the internet (where else, in my little world) that reminded me of how much our little state did to be sure this monster stayed behind bars for as long as possible. And how this one person ruined so many lives in the town I grew up in.

By HELEN O'NEILL, AP Special Correspondent
Sun Dec 16, 1:46 AM ET

WARWICK, R.I. - They called him Iron Man, a hulking teenage football player with a baby face and winsome smile who lived with his parents in a small ranch house in the Buttonwoods section of town.

Then, one summer night in 1987, Craig Price crept across his neighbor's yard, broke into a little brown house on Inez Avenue and stabbed Rebecca Spencer 58 times. She was a 27-year-old mother of two. He was 13.

Two years passed before Price struck again.

Joan Heaton, 39, was butchered with the kitchen knives she had bought earlier that day. The bodies of her daughters, Jennifer 10, and Melissa 8, were found in pools of blood, pieces of knives broken off in their bones; Jennifer had been stabbed 62 times.

Buttonwoods was paralyzed. Police combed the streets. Neighbors padlocked their doors. The Heaton house was just a few hundred yards from the Spencer home and the question hung thick over the tidy, working-class neighborhood: What kind of monster was living in their midst?

The answer came two weeks later.

Price was a wisecracking 15-year-old who had been in minor trouble for petty burglaries — "thieving" he called it — but who seemed friendly to neighbors and was always surrounded by friends.

Police had become suspicious after Price lied about a deep gash on his finger. They knew from the crime scene that the killer had cut himself. A bloody sock-print matched Price's size-13 feet. They found the knives in his backyard shed.

At the police station, his mother sobbing softly beside him, Price calmly confessed to the four murders.

Yet even as police and prosecutors celebrated the capture of Rhode Island's most notorious serial killer, they were reminded of a grim reality.

In five years, Price would be free to kill again.

Price was a month shy of his 16th birthday. As a juvenile, he would be released from the youth correctional center when he turned 21 — the maximum penalty under Rhode Island law at the time. His records would be sealed. The 5-foot-10 inch, 240-pound killer would be free to resume his life as if the murders had never occurred.

The law was on his side and Price knew it.

"When I get out I'm going to smoke a bomber," Price yelled to the crowd, as he was led, handcuffed, from the courthouse.

Jeffrey Pine, then assistant attorney general, said he had never felt such frustration or disgust. "There was something fundamentally wrong with a system that allowed someone who killed four people to simply go free at 21," Pine said.

And so Pine and others embarked on a remarkable mission. They would change the system so that future young murderers could be locked up for life. At the same time they would do their best to ensure that Price himself would stay behind bars long past his 21st birthday.

It was an extraordinary response to an extraordinary case and it involved every level of government, from the governor's and attorney general's offices to the state legislature, the police and the courts.

In effect, the legal system would bend the laws it was sworn to uphold because, despite misgivings by some, many believed that keeping Price behind bars was simply the right thing to do.

Even today, Price's taped confession sounds chillingly surreal. In a nonchalant, matter-of-fact drawl he describes the night of terror in the Heaton home. He tells how he bit Heaton's face as he knifed her. He mimics the last sounds of the dying girls. He whines about cutting his hand.

Detective Tim Colgan, who took Price's confession, went home that night and cried. Colgan had been first on the scene. Never had he witnessed such savagery. Nor such lack of remorse.

Detective Kevin Collins, who assisted with the confession, had never felt such rage. He vowed to do everything in his power to prevent Price from ever walking free.

For years, that is what he did.

With members of the victims' families, he formed Citizens Opposed to the Release of Craig Price, or CORP. He organized rallies, launched fundraisers, appeared on national news shows and in publications: Larry King Live, Time, Newsweek. CORP hired planes to fly banners in major cities around the country declaring "Killer Craig Price. Moving to your city? Beware."

Every time the name Craig Price surfaced, so did the earnest, angry face of a seasoned police officer warning the nation about the murderer who had terrorized his town.

"Craig Price is a serial killer stopped temporarily at four killings," he said. "He should be locked up for life."

Many in the state agreed. Within a month of Price's arrest, the state legislature passed a law allowing juveniles to be tried in adult court for serious crimes. The same measure had failed on two previous occasions.

But the law couldn't be applied retroactively to Price. Collins and Pine knew they needed to do more.

Pine's chance came when he was elected attorney general in 1992.

He pushed for legislation to allow judges to consider criminal records in deciding whether someone should be committed to a psychiatric hospital. Known as the Craig Price Bill, it passed in 1994.

He flew to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., to seek the advice of Greg McCrary, a national expert on serial killers. McCrary had profiled hundreds of murderers. But rarely had he encountered anyone as violent as Price. Less than 1 percent of killers are that frenzied, he told Pine. And, so far, society has found no way to treat them.

In a detailed report, McCrary described Price as a human predator who showed no empathy or remorse and was highly likely to kill again. State psychologists were saying the same thing.

Nothing in Price's background explained his rage. By all accounts he was from a stable home where both parents worked to provide a comfortable life for their children.

Wesley Profit, a Massachusetts psychiatrist who examined Price on behalf of the state, wrote in 1990 that Price was a serial killer who was "in a psychotic rage at the time of the murders." He is "in dire need of extensive treatment," Profit continued, "and even then may not be in a position to be safely placed in the community."

The reports were more tools for the state, Pine said. "We were looking at everything."

In many ways, the best tool turned out to be Price himself.

On the advice of his court-appointed lawyer, Price refused a court order to undergo further psychological testing, fearing the results would be used to commit him for life. His refusals allowed Pine's office to file contempt-of-court charges in 1994. When Price flew into a rage and threatened to "snuff out" a corrections officer, Pine seized the opportunity to file extortion charges.

It was an extraordinary indictment. No one could remember an inmate being charged for what many considered routine language in the youth prison.

"We were dealing with a quadruple murderer who had threatened to kill again," Pine said, "And we were going to prosecute him to the full extent of the law."

But he was also dealing with a growing public demand for action, fueled by fear of Price's imminent release. Price's 21st birthday was on Oct. 11, 1994.

Media reports describing the young killer's life behind bars stoked the fear. There were stories about how Price had beefed up to 300 pounds by lifting weights, how he had made a controversial rap video about killing a cop, how he boasted freely about "making history" when he was released.

Even President Clinton couldn't avoid the furor surrounding Price. In May 1994 when Clinton flew to Providence he was greeted by demonstrators holding banners demanding that the "Warwick Slasher" remain locked up. Pressed in a television interview, Clinton said he thought it was "outrageous that this kid could get out."

Gov. Bruce Sundlun was saying the same thing.

"Everyone in state government shares your concerns," he told the crowd at a candlelit vigil outside Warwick City Hall in June 1994. "Everyone in state government wants to blow out the candle on Craig Price and keep him behind bars."

But the state still had to figure out ways to do so. A major test was the extortion trial.

Patrick Youngs, who prosecuted the case and still works in the attorney general's office, remembers hyperventilating as he waited for the verdict. It was days before Price's 21st birthday. The whole state was watching. Television stations were cutting into soap operas to report the outcome. Youngs knew the judge would not be swayed by public pressure. And he knew he had a very weak case.

By now Price had a new lawyer, Robert Mann, one of the state's most respected civil rights advocates with a reputation for taking on tough cases. In court, Mann accused the attorney general's office of twisting the laws to selectively prosecute Price. The state was essentially using two sets of laws, he argued, one for everyone else and one for Price.

But Price sealed his own fate. Found guilty by a jury, he delivered a belligerent, rambling diatribe about how he had paid his dues to society and how he was now being persecuted because of his race. "The media has once again done a good job of creating a monster," he said, his voice thundering through the stunned courtroom. "Not just a bogeyman, but a black bogeyman."

"The judge got a glimpse," Youngs said. "And that was all he needed."

Price was sentenced to 15 years, seven to serve and eight suspended. He spent his 21st birthday in the Adult Correctional Institution.

Citizens Opposed to the Release of Craig Price spent it at a candlelit vigil at the state house.

"The test of the system is not whether some middle-class white kid caught with an ounce of marijuana gets a fair shake," Mann says. "The test is whether someone portrayed as larger than life evil gets a fair shake."

There was no doubt that Price tested the limits of the system.

"People said we bent the system," Youngs said. "We didn't. We did our best within the rules."

For more than a decade, the state continued to find creative ways way to charge and convict Price. The criminal contempt charge stemming from Price's earlier refusals to submit to psychiatric testing went forward — and brought a one-year sentence — even though, on the advice of Mann, Price had since agreed to the tests. Fights in prison led to assault charges. The state even took the unusual step of charging Price with violation of probation while he was in prison.

Every conviction added more time. And every conviction brought more headlines about the state's tireless efforts to protect the public from Craig Price.

Several appeals went to the state Supreme Court. Always, Price lost.

Mann wasn't the only one who questioned the lengths to which the state went. Mental health advocates had bitterly opposed the law allowing courts to consider criminal records in commitment proceedings. The state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union consistently criticized the state's tactics.

"The pressure that was brought to bear to keep him in prison is the same pressure that condemns innocent people to prison and to death," Steven Brown, the branch's executive director, said in 1994.

Yet lawmakers, prosecutors and judges were faced with an agonizing dilemma: What should society do with a psychopathic killer it cannot legally lock up for life?

In May 1997 Price appeared before Chief District Court Judge Albert DeRobbio after a jury convicted him of criminal contempt. Three years earlier DeRobbio had sentenced Price to one year for the same charge, believing it was the maximum he could impose. Subsequently the
Supreme Court ruled that judges had unlimited sentencing power in such cases.

At 77 and still head of the District Court, DeRobbio is the respected elder statesman of the Rhode Island judiciary. From his courtroom on Dorrance Street, DeRobbio has handed down thousands of sentences and seen his share of murderers.

The Price sentencing, he says, was the most difficult decision of his career.

Contempt charges usually result in a fine, not jail time. Yet the state was begging DeRobbio to put Price away for life.

DeRobbio could weigh public health and safety, but not public fear. He could take into account the murders, but he could not sentence Price for those crimes.

"I did not feel that I could, in conscience, sentence him to life on a contempt charge," DeRobbio said.

And so he gave 25 years, 10 to serve and the remaining 15 years if Price got into trouble or refused treatment.

"I felt that to put him on hold for 25 years would be to put a hold on many, many things," DeRobbio said. "And maybe, in that time, some form of treatment could be found."

Price has written many letters over the years, to judges and prison officials and the media, complaining about his incarceration. Long ago, he says, he paid his debt for his juvenile crimes.

"The state was effectively organized not to rehabilitate me, but to incarcerate me," Price said in court in 2004. "They were looking for anything to lock me up."

Many felt that was true, but that the state had no other choice.

"We had a unique combination of the state's most heinous crime committed by one of its youngest criminals," Pine says. "It was a chaotic, emotional time, and I think we did a good job of making the system work."

There is no doubt that Price left a lasting legacy on the juvenile justice system in Rhode Island.

Today, a 15-year-old serial killer would immediately be referred to adult court, and likely sentenced to life without parole.

There are currently 10 juveniles imprisoned or awaiting trial in the Adult Correctional Center.
Price himself ended up in court many more times — for assault, violation of probation, and various appeals. In 2004 he was transferred to the Florida Department of Corrections as part of a routine interstate transfer. Florida prison officials refused to allow him to be interviewed, citing "security reasons."

Price's current scheduled release date is December 2020. He will be 46.

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