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- This article is about the convicted rapist and murderer who came to public attention during the U.S. presidential election, 1988. Willie Horton is also the name of a former Major League Baseball player.
William R. Horton Jr. (born August 12, 1951 in Chesterfield, South Carolina) is a convicted felon who was the subject of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program that released him while serving a life sentence for murder, providing him the opportunity to commit a rape and armed robbery. A political advertisement during the 1988 U.S. Presidential race was critical of the Democratic nominee and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for his support of the program.
On October 26, 1974, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Horton and two accomplices robbed Joseph Fournier, a 17 year old gas station attendant, stabbed him 19 times, and left him in a trash can. Fournier died from blood loss. Horton was convicted of murder, sentenced to life imprisonment, and incarcerated at the Concord Correctional Facility 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 assaulted local resident Clifford Barnes and raped his fiancée. He then stole Barnes' car, but was later captured by police after a chase. That autumn in Maryland, Horton was sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years. Horton admitted to stealing the car but has maintained that he did not commit the assaults on the Barnes couple.
Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time, and while he did not start the furlough program, he had supported it as a method of rehabilitation. The State inmate furlough program was actually signed into law by Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1972. However, in 1976, Governor Dukakis vetoed a bill that would have made inmates convicted of first-degree murder ineligible for furloughs. The program remained in effect through the intervening term of governor Edward J. King and was abolished during Dukakis's final term of office on April 28, 1988. This abolition only occurred after the Lawrence Eagle Tribune had run 175 stories about the furlough program and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Senator Al Gore raised the general issue of the furlough program during the 1988 Democratic presidential primary. In June of 1988, after Dukakis had clinched the Democratic Party nomination, Republican candidate George H.W. Bush seized on the Horton case, bringing it up repeatedly in campaign speeches. Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, bragged that "by the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name." Horton had never gone by the name Willie, but rather William.  Media consultant Roger Ailes was reported to remark "the only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."
Beginning on September 21, 1988, the Americans for Bush arm of the National Security Political Action Committee, began running an attack 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 Ailes. After clearing the ad with television stations, McCarthy went back and added a menancing mug shot of Horton, who is African-American. He called the image "every suburban mother's greatest fear." The ad was run as an independent expenditure, separate from the Bush campaign, which claimed, as is legally required, not to have had any role in its production.
On October 5, a day after the "Weekend Passes" ad was taken off the airwaves, 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 did depict a variety of intimidating-looking men walking in and out of prison through a revolving door. The commercial was filmed at an actual state prison in Draper, Utah, but the persons depicted - thirty in all, including three African-Americans and two Hispanics - were all paid actors. Attempting to counter-attack, Dukakis's campaign ran a similar ad about a Hispanic murderer named Angel Medrano who murdered a pregnant mother of two while on furlough from federal prison. Dukakis's ad stated Medrano's name and showed his photograph.
The controversy escalated when Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen and former Democratic candidate and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the ad racist. In 1991, terminally ill with cancer, Atwater apologized to Dukakis for saying that he would "make Willie Horton his running mate...because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."
Horton and his role in the campaign became something of a cause celebre among liberals in the United States, including in the media; Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin published an interview with Horton on the day of Bush's inauguration.
In 1990, the Ohio Democratic Party and a group called "Black Elected Democrats of Ohio" filed a complaint with the Federal Elections 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.
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