January 15, 2006

A ‘savior’ beyond sanity?

Telegram & Gazette

Dianne Williamson


Joseph L. Druce seems infinitely at home in Room 203 of Worcester Superior Court. The rail-thin defendant waves graciously to spectators and nods briskly in agreement at various witnesses who please him. He whispers urgently to his lawyer and addresses the judge at sidebar conferences. Each day, as he’s escorted in and out of the courtroom, he tosses nonsensical verbal nuggets at the media that target everyone from Gov. Mitt Romney to Pope Benedict XVI.

Is this the behavior of an egomaniac or a madman?

On Aug. 23, 2002, inmate Druce snuck into the cell of pedophile priest John J. Geoghan and strangled the life from the 68-year-old man with a pair of socks and a sneaker.

Is this the work of a cold-blooded killer or delusional lunatic?

Last week, various witnesses said Mr. Druce claimed that he killed the defrocked priest to protect children from further sexual abuse.

Will a jury render him moral or mad? If you kill a pedophile and don’t think it’s wrong, is that a sign of mental illness or something else?

The answers aren’t as obvious as one might think — or hope. During jury selection for Mr. Druce’s murder trial, one prospective juror was dismissed after admitting that he had no sympathy for Mr. Geoghan. Still another was released after telling the judge that Mr. Geoghan’s alleged crimes were so awful that he “probably didn’t deserve to live.”

In the courtroom Friday afternoon, Mr. Druce turned to address a spectator who has been seated quietly in the front row since the start of the trial.

“Did you get my letter?” Mr. Druce asked, before being shushed by a court officer.

The spectator is Richard Chesnis of Worcester. Earlier this year, he filed a civil suit in Worcester Superior Court in connection with the alleged sexual abuse of his son during the 1980s by a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. John J. Szantyr, who also faces criminal charges.

On Friday, Mr. Chesnis told me that he’s written three “empathetic” letters to Mr. Druce since he was charged with the brutal slaying of the frail former priest.

“I don’t agree with the act of murder, but I agree with why he did it,” Mr. Chesnis said. “The state should have done what Mr. Druce did.”

Clearly, Mr. Druce believes he’s a hero. The self-described pedophile slayer and protector of children boasted repeatedly of the killing and believed it would make him famous, according to various witnesses. He claimed he committed the crime after overhearing a telephone conversation in which Mr. Geoghan, who was serving a 9- to 10-year sentence for sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy, said he planned to go to South America to work with children after his release. Mr. Geoghan was a central figure in the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston, and was alleged to have abused many boys.

So one day Joseph Druce sneaked into his cell, fashioned a rough noose around the priest’s neck and ignored the man’s pleas for mercy.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Mr. Geoghan pleaded with his attacker.

“Your days are over,” Mr. Druce said he replied. “No more children for you, pal.” And with that, inside the protective custody unit of one of the most secure prisons in Massachusetts, Mr. Druce administered the crudest form of vigilante justice, in an institution that botched its basic duty to keep its prisoners safe.

His lawyer is raising an insanity defense, and it will be up to a jury to decide if Mr. Druce suffered from a mental disease or defect that caused him to lack the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions or that left him unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. I don’t envy the jurors, likely laypersons all, who must somehow crawl inside the head of Joseph Druce at the time he committed the crime. He planned it for weeks — does that mean he’s sane? He thinks he’s a savior — does that mean he’s nuts?

His statements to police offer evidence for both sides.

“He wouldn’t have let it happen if it wasn’t meant to be,” Mr. Druce told an investigator, referring to God.

Yet, he also told investigators that “I’m not sure it was justified” but that he knew he’d be held accountable for the crime.

Joyce Charon, a nurse’s assistant at the prison, said Mr. Druce “got a lot of fan mail” after the murder and was so boastful of the crime that staff would repeatedly tell him to shut up.

“I think he felt like it was his responsibility” to kill the defrocked priest, Ms. Charon said.

Mr. Druce is already serving a life sentence for the murder of a North Shore man who allegedly made a pass at him after picking him up hitchhiking. An insanity defense failed to work in that trial. Testimony in court last week indicated that he also wanted to kill two prison inmates he believed to be gay.

During a break in Friday’s proceedings, Mr. Druce’s lawyer, John H. LaChance, said his client belongs in a mental health facility.

“The way we handle these types of people and the way we treat mental illness is a measure of our society,” he said.

He’s right. And the way we respond to the ruthless killing of a frail old man in a state-run institution — a man who, regardless of his crimes, was never sentenced to die — tells us whether we’re a nation of laws or a nation of lunatics. It’s one thing to express no sympathy for a pedophile, but quite another to applaud his executioner.

Joseph Druce may be mentally ill or he may be a calculated killer. Either way, he’s as far removed from a hero as it gets. That, perhaps, is the only obvious fact to emerge from this convoluted trial.

Contact Dianne Williamson by e-mail at dwilliamson@telegram.com

Posted by kshaw at January 15, 2006 09:50 AM