BOSTON — Donna Comeau was reading a newspaper last year when she spotted a familiar name. William Horton Jr., who had fatally stabbed her brother more than a decade before, had fled when on furlough from prison.
Within several months, Comeau heard about Horton again: He had been arrested for allegedly terrorizing a Maryland couple for 12 hours, tying up and stabbing the man and raping the woman twice.
"It never should have happened," Comeau said in an interview. "If he'd been in jail, those people wouldn't have been hurt."
Comeau helped form Citizens Against an Unsafe Society, which is working to put a referendum on the 1988 ballot to eliminate furloughs for first-degree murderers.
The group says it has collected about 40,000 of the 52,205 petition signatures needed by Nov. 23.
In 1974, Comeau's 17-year-old brother, gasoline station attendant Joey Fournier, was stabbed 19 times after being robbed of $235.
At times like holidays and birthdays, his family relives the murder, she said.
The Fournier family had believed that Horton would stay in prison until he died. Comeau said she was never alerted when he was let out on furloughs and did not even knew the furlough program existed.
Dukakis Refuses to Act
After Horton's arrest, CAUS members asked Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to eliminate furloughs for first-degree murderers. He refused.
The group went to legislators for help, but a bill to eliminate the policy has stalled in committee.
CAUS members decided to put the issue before the public.
Member Vivianne Ruggiero is driven by anger. Her husband, a Fall River policeman, was killed by Danny K. Ferreira in 1973. After Ferreira was convicted of first-degree murder, Ruggiero said, officials told her that "the only way he'd get out of prison would be in a pine box."
"I still can't believe this (furlough policy) could happen," she said. "My children at the time were 1 and 2 years old. Now they're teen-agers, and they're very upset. Through the years, they've asked me if the man that killed daddy would ever get out of jail. I said, 'Oh, no, he'll never get out.' That's not the case anymore."
Programs in 45 States
Corrections Commissioner Michael Fair said he sympathizes with murder victims' families, but he defended the furloughs as an effective management tool for prisons and pointed out that there are similar programs in 45 states. Massachusetts began granting furloughs in 1973.
Furlough programs vary from state to state, according to Contact Inc., a corrections information center in Lincoln, Neb. No state allows furloughs for Death Row inmates. Massachusetts does not have the death penalty.
Most states provide furloughs based on provisions such as length of prison sentences or whether an inmate is close to release, according to Contact.
In Massachusetts, the time a first-degree murderer must serve before being eligible for furlough recently was changed to 12 years from 10. All furloughs have been put on hold since the Horton episode and a debate of the furlough policy in the Legislature.
Fair said the public would suffer if furloughs were eliminated.
"It's an important program, especially in Massachusetts, which traditionally . . . never really intended people to go away to prison to die," he said.
Killers Serve 19 Years
The state's life-term inmates, including first-degree murderers, serve an average of 19 years before their sentences are commuted by the governor.
Without furloughs, inmates who are released "go back into the community more bitter and dangerous than when they were committed," Fair said.