Horton's mug shot from "Weekend Passes" Ad
|Born||William R. Horton
August 12, 1951
Chesterfield, South Carolina, United States
|Criminal charge||Murder, assault, armed robbery, rape|
|Criminal penalty||Life in prison|
William R. "Willie" Horton (born August 12, 1951) is an American convicted felon who, while serving a life sentence for murder (without the possibility of parole), was the beneficiary of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program. He did not return from his furlough, and ultimately he committed assault, armed robbery and rape.
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, and then fatally stabbed him 19 times after he had cooperated by handing over all of the money in the cash register. His body was stuffed in a trash can so his feet were jammed up against his chin. Fournier died from blood loss. Horton was convicted of murder, sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and incarcerated at the Northeastern Correctional Center 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 fiancé. He then stole the car belonging to the man he had assaulted. He was later shot and captured by Corporal Yusuf Muhammad (formerly named Joseph Bell) of the Prince George's County Police Department after a pursuit. 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."
On April 18, 1996, Horton was transferred to the Jessup Correctional Institution (then called the Maryland House of Correction Annex), a maximum security prison in Jessup, Maryland, where he remains.
Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time of Horton's release, and while he did not start the furlough program, he had supported it as a method of criminal rehabilitation. The state inmate furlough program, originally signed into law by Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1972, excluded convicted first-degree murderers. However, in 1973, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that this right extended to first-degree murderers, because the law specifically did not exclude them. The Massachusetts legislature quickly passed a bill prohibiting furloughs for such inmates. However, in 1976, Dukakis vetoed this bill arguing it would "cut the heart out of efforts at inmate rehabilitation." The program remained in effect through the intervening term of governor Edward J. King and was abolished during Dukakis' final term of office on April 28, 1988, after Dukakis had decided to run for President. This abolition occurred only after the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune had run 175 stories about the furlough program and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Horton was later interviewed in the periodical, The Nation:
The fact is, my name is not “Willie.” It’s part of the myth of the case. The name irks me. It was created to play on racial stereotypes: big, ugly, dumb, violent, black—“Willie.” I resent that. They created a fictional character—who seemed believable, but who did not exist. They stripped me of my identity, distorted the facts, and robbed me of my constitutional rights.
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 before the New York primary, Gore took issue with the furlough program. However, he did not specifically mention the Horton incident or even his name, instead asking a general question about the Massachusetts furlough program.
Republicans eagerly picked up the Horton issue after Dukakis clinched the nomination. In June 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, said "By the time we're finished, they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate."
Campaign staffer James Pinkerton returned with reams of material that Atwater told him to reduce to a 3×5 index card, telling him, "I'm giving you one thing. You can use both sides of the 3×5 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. 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 Andrew Card, a Massachusetts native whom President George W. Bush later named as his Chief of Staff.
Although commercials about Horton were not run until the fall campaign, Bush first mentioned him at the Texas Republican convention on June 9, 1988.
Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1988, Atwater attended a motorcyclists' convention in Luray, Virginia. Two couples were talking about the Horton story as featured in the July issue of Reader's Digest. Atwater joined them without mentioning 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.
The fall campaign
Beginning on September 21, 1988, the Americans for Bush arm of the National Security Political Action Committee (NSPAC), under the auspices of Floyd Brown, 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 added a menacing mug shot of Horton, who is African American. The ad was run as an independent expenditure, separate from the Bush campaign, which claimed not to have had any role in its production. The ad referred to Horton as "Willie", although he later said he had always gone by William.
On October 5, 1988, a day after the "Weekend Passes" ad was taken off the airwaves, was the date of the 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.
Attempting to counter-attack, Dukakis' campaign ran an ad about a convicted heroin dealer named Angel Medrano who raped and killed a pregnant mother of two after escaping from a federal correctional halfway house. The controversy escalated when Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen and former Democratic presidential candidate and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the "Revolving Door" ad racist – a charge which was denied by Bush.
In 1990, the Ohio Democratic Party and a group called "Black Elected Democrats of Ohio" filed a complaint with the Federal Election 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.
It has been suggested that the Willie Horton ad cost Michael Dukakis the election. Political scientist John Sides finds little evidence for this though.
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- Independent Ads: The National Security Political Action Committee "Willie Horton"
- "Willie Horton" advertisement via American Museum of the Moving Image
- Roger Simon, The Baltimore Sun: How A Murderer And Rapist Became The Bush Campaign's Most Valuable Player
- Anthony Walton's 1989 essay, Willie Horton and Me