Willie Horton 2008

Posted: Nov 27, 2007 12:01 AM
Willie Horton 2008

Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis lost his bid for the White House in small part because he stumbled in his response to the Willie Horton saga. Horton was a convicted killer who, out of prison on a weekend pass in 1987, tortured and raped a Maryland woman. Dukakis' failure to exhibit due and swift outrage helped elect the first President Bush.

Now former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is in a similar pickle -- and anxious to signal that he is no Dukakis. A convicted murderer, set free by a Romney-appointed judge, reportedly confessed to a senseless double murder last week. Romney already has called on the judge to resign.

In 1991, Daniel Tavares Jr. stabbed his mother to death. A plea bargain resulted in a 17- to 20-year sentence. After 16 years, the Massachusetts prison system released Tavares because he earned "automatic good time" off, according to the Boston Herald.

But Tavares was no model prisoner. From behind bars, he threatened to kill then-Gov. Romney and other state officials -- and scuffled with prison guards. Immediately upon his release in June, Tavares was re-arrested on two counts of assaulting correctional officers.

In July, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Kathe Tuttman overturned two $50,000 bail orders on Tavares and released him on the condition that he work, live in-state with his sister and call probation officials three times a week. This month, Tavares was arrested in the grisly murder of newlyweds Brian and Beverly Mauck in Washington state, reportedly after a dispute over a $50 debt.

"It's because of the stupidity of Massachusetts that my daughter is dead," Beverly's father, Darrell Slater, told the Herald.

A Romney campaign spokesman explained the presidential candidate's call for Tuttman to resign: "I think there was a breakdown in the entire system, starting with the judge. There is such a thing as accountability in government, even for judges with lifetime tenure."

Tuttman is no thug-hugger. She's a former prosecutor who was director of a family crimes and sexual assault unit. She must be agonizing over her decision. Perhaps she was swayed by the defense attorney's argument that the two assault charges, filed 15 months and 18 months after the fact, were designed to "continue to keep Mr. Tavares incarcerated." I should note that the Worcester County D.A.'s office -- and hence the judge -- was not aware of Tavares' alleged threats against Romney and other Bay State officials.

Assistant D.A. William Loughlin argued in court that besides killing his mother, Tavares had been charged with robbery and assault. As for the prison assault charges, Loughlin said, "He has a history of crimes of violence, and he committed crimes of violence while he was even serving a crime of violence."

Loughlin asked Tuttman to order that Tavares wear a GPS-tracking device. Tavares' attorney had said that his client requested a monitoring device. But, a transcript shows, Tuttman concluded that there was "no indication" Tavares presented a flight risk and refused Loughlin's request.

No wonder the families of Brian and Beverly Mauck are furious. The criminal justice system failed them. The political system is not serving them, either. Romney can't be blamed for Tuttman's decision -- he had every reason to expect a law-and-order judge. That said, Romney comes across as craven in calling on Tuttman to resign -- without an investigation and without having talked to her.

Rudy Giuliani's campaign seems too eager to use this tragedy to its advantage. A Giuliani campaign spokesman told me this story serves as "an example of (how Romney) has not been as tough on crime as Rudy Giuliani has been."

In 1998, Dukakis was too slow in challenging a furlough program that never should have freed Willie Horton. In 2008, politics are all pile-on -- no deliberation. Or as Dukakis said of Romney over the phone Monday, "He'll throw anybody under the bus if he thinks it will help him politically."