Aftergraduating from high school with a straight-A average in 1982, Bruce Curtis says that he expected to attend Dalhousie University in Halifax that fall. But for the past four years the quiet 22-year-old from Middleton, N.S., has worn an ill-fitting prison uniform while serving a 20-year sentence for his involvement in two New Jersey killings. Lawyers working on his behalf say Curtis did not receive a fair trial, and his relatives and
friends are concerned that he is vulnerable to attack from other inmates. But now Toronto lawyer and international law expert Gerald Morris has convinced Ottawa to use diplomatic channels to send a clemency plea prepared by Curtis’s lawyers to New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. As well, Maclean's has examined newly available information on pretrial negotiations between the prosecutor, police and Curtis’s former friend Scott Franz. The documents raise new issues about the state’s handling of the case.
Meanwhile, Curtis is in a brick prison in Bordentown, N.J., only 10 km from the governor’s office in Trenton. He writes poetry and works in the prison’s education centre filing data on computers. As well, he avoids as best he can the frequent fights among prisoners.
Curtis was convicted after a widely publicized trial in March, 1983, and two subsequent appeals failed. Late in June, 1982, Curtis accompanied Franz
on a visit to Loch Arbour, 80 km south of Newark, N.J. Testimony at Curtis’s trial showed that he had entered a violence-torn household where Franz’s stepfather, Alfred Podgis, often punched his wife and stepson and regularly threatened them with guns from his collection. Then, on the morning of July 5, 1982, after eight days of domestic strife, Franz shot and killed his stepfather in an upstairs bedroom of the stucco house. And when Franz
came downstairs, he found Curtis holding a hunting rifle and standing over Rosemary Podgis’s dead body.
At Curtis’s trial, defence lawyer Michael Schottland said that when his client heard the gunshots upstairs he grabbed the loaded rifle and began to leave the house. Instead, the defence lawyer said, he collided with the woman, causing the gun to fire accidentally. The lawyer also argued that the two youths had panicked after the killings and fled instead of calling the police. Five days later, police arrested the two fugitives in a suburb of Dallas and returned them to New Jersey. There, Franz pleaded guilty to murder. But instead of life imprisonment, he received the minimum 20-year sentence after testifying against Curtis.
The jury acquitted Curtis of murder but found him guilty of aggravated manslaughter. Although Curtis had no previous criminal record, New Jersey Superior Court Judge John Arnone
gave him the maximum sentence of 20 years. But U.S. and Canadian legal experts say that the judge committed serious procedural errors. Among them: allowing testimony that included gory details about the murder of Alfred Podgis—a crime for which Curtis was not on trial. Said Toronto criminal lawyer Edward Greenspan: “That sentence, for a boy like Curtis in those circumstances, was outrageous.”
During the nine-day trial prosecutor Paul Chaiet referred to Curtis as the evil mastermind behind the killings. But according to a New Jersey private investigator who worked on Curtis’s defence, the prosecution could not have made that charge without Franz’s testimony. Investigator Dennis Fahey interviewed Franz shortly before the Curtis trial began. And in the taperecorded prison interview Franz recalled that his lawyer and the state prosecutor had told him that “it would be hard to make a case” against Curtis without Franz’s co-operation. Declared Fahey: “Without Scott Franz, the state had no case against Bruce Curtis, and Franz has changed his story or admitted lying a number of times.”
In their efforts to obtain Curtis’s freedom, a new trial or a reduced sentence, his relatives have spent more than $100,000 on lawyers’ fees alone. Last year a New York City law firm filed a petition with a U.S. federal court judge arguing that their client had been “unlawfully detained” as a result of grave legal errors.
Curtis might have to wait another year before the judge hears that plea, and his lawyers acknowledge that such petitions rarely succeed. Curtis may also have to wait for as much as a year before Gov. Kean responds to the clemency plea. As a result, his best chance of returning home may be contained in a proposed state law which would permit Canadian inmates serving time in New Jersey institutions to complete their sentences in Canada. The proposal is expected to become law by December, but Morris said that he would consider such a transfer only as a last resort, because Canadian authorities would be powerless to alter his client’s sentence.
For his part, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark has denied repeated requests that he press U.S. authorities for a formal review of the case—a refusal which angers Curtis’s relatives.
But an External Affairs official told Maclean's that, while Ottawa could not formally involve itself in the campaign to free Curtis, transmitting the plea through diplomatic channels would underline Canadian concern. And on June 3 an official from the Canadian consulate in New York began the first in a series of monthly visits to Curtis—another unusual action. Declared Morris: “There has been a discernible change of attitude by some officials, possibly because we have brought new facts about the case to their attention.” Curtis himself says that he is reluctant to place too much hope in
the measures being taken on his behalf. Appearing pale, underweight and younger than his 22 years, Curtis told Maclean's that he spends much of his time studying and reading. He added that one of his principal concerns is to avoid the frequent fights among his fellow inmates. To that end, he shuns the prison dining room, preferring solitary vegetarian meals of nuts, fruit or cheese in his cell. Curtis did not seem bitter about his treatment, but he would like to go home well before July 10, 1992—the first possible date for his parole. Said Curtis: “After 10 years in prison I would have gone through a lot of changes that may be permanent.” His supporters hope that they can win his release before that occurs.
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