Trial Opens in Prison Slaying of Ex-Priest

By Pam Belluck
The New York Times
January 12, 2006

WORCESTER, Mass., Jan. 11 - The murder of John J. Geoghan, a defrocked priest, in 2003 by an inmate in state prison was a shocking and almost surreal denouement to one of the darkest chapters of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Geoghan's violent death in the most secure prison in Massachusetts was to some an appalling failure of the state to protect one of its most despised inmates. To others it was a horrible but justified retribution against Mr. Geoghan, one of the most reviled priests named in the abuse scandal, accused of molesting some 150 children in several parishes over three decades.

Now, the man who admits he killed Mr. Geoghan, Joseph L. Druce, is having his day in court, and for anyone watching the trial, it is hard to figure out where to put one's sympathies - with the murder victim or the man who killed him.

Mr. Druce, 40, is pleading not guilty by reason of mental illness. His lawyer, John LaChance, does not dispute the details of the case. Prosecutors say Mr. Druce followed Mr. Geoghan into his cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center on Aug. 23, 2003, and jammed the cell door shut with a nail clipper and a ripped-up copy of "The Cross and the Switchblade," a book about a minister who transformed the lives of teenage gang members by introducing them to Christianity.

Mr. Druce then tied Mr. Geoghan's hands with a T-shirt, wrapped stretched-out socks around Mr. Geoghan's neck, tightened them with a shoe, and then jumped up and down on his body.

According to testimony by corrections officers on Wednesday, Mr. Druce later told them he "did it for the children," to stop Mr. Geoghan, 68, from molesting more boys when he got out of prison.

Mr. Geoghan was serving 6 years of a 9-to-10-year sentence for groping a boy in a swimming pool, and Mr. Druce told law enforcement authorities that he had heard Mr. Geoghan talking about plans to assault more children upon his release. Mr. Druce also signed a card waiving his Miranda rights "the Reverend Joseph Druce."

Mr. LaChance suggested Wednesday that Mr. Druce's behavior was evidence of insanity, saying "he began fantasizing about being an individual who would save the kids and save the world."

The prosecutor, Lawrence Murphy, suggested the opposite, that the fact that "Mr. Druce was planning to kill John Geoghan" showed that he was not insane.

Mr. Druce is serving a life sentence without parole for beating and strangling a driver who he said made a sexual advance toward him when he was hitchhiking in 1988. He unsuccessfully tried an insanity defense in that case in 1989, and his lawyer in that case emphasized Mr. Druce's highly troubled background, including serious behavior problems, drug use, a mother who did not want him and a father who was abusive to his mother.

Mr. LaChance referred to that background Wednesday, saying that Mr. Druce was "like a little puppy you beat and beat," adding, "Eventually the puppy strikes back when it is old enough and big enough."

At the time of Mr. Geoghan's slaying, Mr. Druce's father, Dana Smiledge, said Mr. Druce also had white supremacist leanings - a hatred of gay people, Jews and blacks.

Mr. Geoghan's murder not only stunned victims of abuse by priests, but also ignited a state investigation into the prison system. Several correction officials were removed, including the correction commissioner.

The investigation found that only one guard was monitoring the 26-inmate unit at the time Mr. Druce slipped into Mr. Geoghan's cell and that the cell doors had been left open while the inmates were taking their lunch trays to a collection point.

Mr. Geoghan was jailed in early 2002 and moved from a medium-security prison in Concord to the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski prison in Shirley in early 2003 after complaining that he felt harassed by guards and afraid for his safety.

The state investigation said that Mr. Geoghan was indeed mistreated by guards in Concord and that he was inappropriately transferred to Shirley, where he was put in a wing for inmates who needed to be separated from the general prison population. But some of them were violent offenders, and many were younger than the frail Mr. Geoghan.

Mr. Druce was transferred there not long afterward because he, too, had felt unsafe in his previous prison, where he had become a jailhouse informant, his lawyer said. Mr. Druce had changed his name, from Darrin Smiledge, because he was afraid of his prison enemies.

Mr. LaChance said that Mr. Druce had been delusional in the past, pretending he was a rich person who owned yachts and million-dollar houses, and subscribing to Robb Report, the luxury magazine, at his previous prison. He said Mr. Druce fantasized that if he killed Mr. Geoghan "he would be someone like a rich person with a yacht."

Mr. Druce, who has previously held up photographs and demonstrated other showy behavior in court, was medicated Wednesday with Ritalin and possibly other drugs, Mr. LaChance said. He made a thumbs up sign to several reporters, but otherwise seemed less attention-seeking. If his defense is successful, Mr. Druce is likely to be moved to a psychiatric institution.


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