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A false spin on ‘jailhouse justice’

State Representative Demetrius Atsalis, a Democrat from Barnstable who serves on the Joint Committee on Public Safety, says a woman from the Boston area called his office upset about his insensitivity. An e-mailer from Michigan told him, "You sound like a murdering psychopath." A Boston Globe editorial on Monday didn’t name him, but it obviously had him in mind when it criticized those who "[t]alk of jailhouse justice."

Well, no wonder. Here’s how the Globe quoted Atsalis in its lead story on Sunday about the prison murder of former priest John Geoghan: "Not to sound cold here, but growing up, you hear about jailhouse justice and this might be a case of that. Those who prey on children aren’t seen in the same light as other convicts. Is it shocking? I don’t think so. His crime was against children and convicts know that — they don’t like it."

Two observations: 1) Atsalis sounds like he’s walking right up to the brink of endorsing Geoghan’s brutal murder; and 2) only a handful of Globe readers know that that’s not all he said. Because here is the paragraph that followed in the Globe’s first edition — distributed on Cape Cod and in a few other outlying areas — and that was cut in all subsequent editions and online versions of the article:

"But Atsalis called Geoghan’s death ‘distressing,’ and said ‘it’s troubling when anybody’s in custody of the Commonwealth and they die in prison. They become a ward of the state, and there is some responsibility with the state to make sure they are safe. Obviously, there may have been a lapse. Who knows?’"

That casts Atsalis’s first comments in an entirely different light. So why was it cut?

Carolyn Ryan, the Globe’s metro editor, said as the Phoenix was about to go to press on Wednesday that she could not give an "authoritative" answer. But she added that it appeared the paragraph was cut to make room for new developments in a fast-breaking story.

"That’s what it looks like — someone made a hasty trim," Ryan said. "Perhaps the better thing would have been to take the whole thing out."

Atsalis says his comments were in response to a question from a Globe reporter — he is unsure who (according to the story as published, six reporters had some involvement in the piece) — as to whether Geoghan’s murder was a case of "jailhouse justice."

Since he gets the first edition on the Cape, he says he wasn’t aware of how he looked until he started getting calls and e-mails from outside the district. He’s been responding to critics by having his staff send out copies of the second paragraph so that they will understand the context. He also explained himself in an interview on WBZ-TV (Channel 4).

"I’m Greek Orthodox, I go to church on Sundays, I’ve got three children," Atsalis says. "Holy cow."

Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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