Aida Ramos was sixteen years old when her little brother, Benjamin LaGuer—future author, poet, inspiration to politicians and prisoners alike, and Massachusetts inmate #W40280—was born in the Bronx on May 1, 1963. That same year, Michael Jordan was born, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to more than a quarter of a million people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was also the year that W. E. B. Du Bois took his last breath on earth.
Ramos remembers LaGuer as a gentle soul, born into the thick of familial strife. Their father, Luperto, had married Maria Garcia, a single mother of two boys she was raising in New York City. After Ben came brother Eli in 1966, and David in 1971. According to Ramos, their mother was bent on keeping her husband away from the children of his previous marriage.
By the time Luperto and Maria divorced, Ben was eleven. Maria moved with the boys to her childhood home in the southeast corner of Puerto Rico, near the city of Guayama. Ben struggled there. Accounts vary as to why Maria sent Ben back to the states a few years later to live with his father. His youngest brother, David, remembers Ben being beaten by police more than once. His older brother Frank Rodriguez says Ben’s troubles were related to the darkness of his skin, in a society stratified by the vestiges of Spanish colonial racism: “Anyone of African descent gets stopped in Puerto Rico, that was the problem.” Ben was also physically abused by his mother. Ramos said her understanding was that Ben, who had developed a pronounced stutter, was being disciplined for getting into “teenage trouble” that his mother couldn’t handle.
Ben’s father, Luperto, was also in transition at the time. He nearly lost an eye during a mugging, and his health was in decline. He moved in with his daughter, Judy, who was at the hub of an active Seventh Day Adventist religious community in Haverstraw, NY. Ben, now 15, joined his father in Judy’s home. After a year, father and son moved to Leominster, Massachusetts, where they shared a room in Ramos’s apartment in Riverside Village, a housing complex on the northern edge of the small city.
LaGuer enrolled in Leominster High School, and attended the Spanish American Center after-school program. LaGuer and his sister developed a close relationship. “I took him in, and to me he was like a second son,” says Ramos. “He was just a good kid. Okay, he loved me to death. I loved him. I asked him to do something, and he did it. We were close. He thought of me as his mom, because I gave him love and affection.”
Ramos had two daughters and a son close in age to her brother. Emily, a younger niece by two years, was like a sister. She remembers cutting Ben’s hair and his being protective of her and fastidious about his grooming: “I was a shy person. He was friendly, it was nice to have somebody to talk to.”
LaGuer blossomed, developing friendships and interests as his world expanded. He was enveloped by a family in which education, faith, and morality were highly prized. His three older sisters were all young professionals raising children.
LaGuer would later write eloquently about his parents. He described coming to terms with his mother’s damaged soul in an essay titled “A Man Who Loves his Mother Loves Women,” for which he received a PEN award. In another acclaimed essay, “Quarantined Behind Stone and Steel,” LaGuer describes getting to know his father for the first time as an adult, and as a prisoner. Luperto’s way of teaching him to be a man, LaGuer wrote, was to send him into the Army to learn discipline.
At age 20, after being discharged under honorable conditions, buoyed by renewed confidence in himself, LaGuer headed home to Leominster. His sisters, his role models, had earned degrees and were in positions of responsibility; he planned to attend Fitchburg State College on the GI Bill. Leominster had always been a respite from his chaotic, often cruel, childhood. Now he was ready to put to work the discipline he learned in the service to make something of himself, and to make his family proud. LaGuer’s trajectory then took a life-altering detour.
In the eyes of the law, Benjamin LaGuer beat and raped his elderly neighbor shortly after returning home to Leominster. The accusation, and later conviction, defined the rest of his life.
In February 1984, after rejecting a plea under which he would have been free a year and a half later, LaGuer was convicted by a jury of twelve white men and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 15 years. He persisted against the injustice of his incarceration from the day he was arrested until he died of liver cancer, alone, 37 years later, in a prison hospital, on November 4, 2020.
Historical documents offer up facts on what happened, and readers of those documents can reach their own conclusions on LaGuer’s guilt or innocence, on his trials and tribulations in a flawed justice system, and on the numerous parole bids, repeatedly rejected based on his refusal to take responsibility for the crime.
The Benjamin LaGuer Papers tell the story of a model prisoner, a family man, a college graduate. The collection documents LaGuer’s friends and family who believed in him, and who were devastated by his plight, and LaGuer’s repeated offers of employment, of housing, of legal assistance. They contain psychiatric evaluations. He attracted prodigious press coverage as an erudite inmate who made a convincing case for his innocence resting on solid facts and flourishes of expression.
Ben LaGuer had an easy way with journalists, including me. He explained to a television reporter during a jailhouse broadcast how he was trying to make peace with an impossible situation by believing that “we are all unprecedented miracles.” His archive encompasses creative writing awards, academic achievements, a remarkable amount of press coverage, documents of friendships and correspondences, and, permeating it all, a fierce and sustained advocacy for personal justice.
With the acquisition of Ben LaGuer’s prison papers by Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries is home to a notable legal and historical resource. The documents open a window onto an extraordinary life lived behind bars.
As word of this collection spreads, new information relating to the case is surfacing and new material is being contributed. Thanks to Ben LaGuer and many others, these materials will be available to researchers seeking to better understand this case and the Massachusetts criminal justice system. Read more about the collection here.
Photo left: Eric Goldscheider ’93MA
1963, Born May 1, Bronx, NYC, Father: Luperto Laguer (1920-1995), Sisters: Judith Irizarry, Aida Ramos, Lisa Bromes, Mother: Maria Garcia (b. c1930), Brothers: Daniel Garcia, Frank Rodriguez, Eli Laguer, David Laguer. (Ben later preferred to spell his last name LaGuer.)
1974: Parents divorce. Moves to Puerto Rico with mother and two younger brothers, Eli and David Laguer. Family moves to the city of Guayama. Run-ins with local authorities.
1977: Moves to Haverstraw, NY, to live with father, older sister Judy, and her family, active in the Spanish Seventh Day Adventist Church. Meets niece Elaine Irizarry-Kline.
1978: Moves to Leominster, MA, with father. Lives with older sister Ida, mother of three. Enrolls in Leominster High School. Attends Spanish American Center after-school program.
1980: Nov. Enlists in the US Army.
1981–1982: Stationed in Fort Bragg and West Germany. Court martialed on marijuana charges.
1983: May 26 Earns Kansas State High School Equivalency Diploma. June 24 Discharged from Army under honorable conditions. July 15 Arrested in Leominster. Aug. 4 Indicted for aggravated rape, robbery, breaking and entering, and assault and battery.
1984: Jan. Convicted by a jury of 12 white men.Feb. Sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole in 1998. Sent to Mass. Correctional Institution (MCI) Walpole.Secures job in prison library, has some success as a jailhouse lawyer, begins working on an appeal.May Psychiatric report deems LaGuer “not sexually dangerous.”
1985: Feb. Transferred to North Central Correctional Institution Gardner (NCCI).Begins Mount Wachusett Community College prison education program.July Verdict is confirmed on appeal.
1986: Sept. Representing himself, seeks to have indictment overturned.Oct. Richard Nangle publishes series in the Leominster Sentinel & Enterprise calling guilt into question.Dec. Motion for a new trial.
1987: Sept. John King publishes “LaGuer’s Struggle for Freedom,” AP. First public awareness of racistcomments among jurors.Oct. John Strahinich publishes “Beyond A Reasonable Doubt,” Boston Magazine.Nov. Francis Connelly publishes “Toward A Reasonable Doubt,” Boston Phoenix.
1988: April David Arnold publishes “A ConvictArgues for his Freedom,” The Boston Globe.July Juror affidavit alleges racial prejudice before and during deliberations.
June Motion denied for a new trial.
July Andrew Baron publishes “Why Can’t This Man Get A New Trial?” Worcester Magazine.Sept. Begins the UMass prison education program directed by Walt Silva.
Oct. John Strahinich publishes “Obsession: When a Reporter Has Finished with the Story, But the Story has not finished with the Reporter,” Boston Magazine.
Channel 7 airs a two-part investigative report by Hank Phillippi Ryan.
Jan. John Hashimoto publishes “Justice Denied: Did Racist Remarks Taint the Jury of Ben LaGuer?” Boston Phoenix.
May Supreme Judicial Court rules LaGuer entitled to a new trial if jurors made racist comments.
July Enrolls in News Writing & Reporting class at UMass.
Aug. Sean Flynn publishes “Oxymoronic,” an account of the hearing in which trial judge rules that juror racism cannot be proven, Boston Phoenix.
July Allen Fletcher publishes “Citizen LaGuer: A Life on Hold,” Worcester Magazine.
Aug. Timothy Sandler publishes “Ben LaGuer Gets One Shot At Redemption,” Boston Phoenix.
March Appeals court upholds denial of a new trial.
April Channel 7 airs jailhouse interview on Urban Update with Daisy Olivera. May Transferred to MCI Norfolk.
John Taylor publishes “And the Truth Shall Set Him Free. Or Will It?” Esquire Magazine.
Feb. 19 Death of father, Luperto Laguer. Attends burial in Leominster.
Sept. Begins Boston University (BU) program.
Jan. Mark Jurkowitz publishes “The Best PR Man Behind Bars: Lifer Masters The Media, Pitching His Innocence,” The Boston Globe.
July John Silber congratulates on pending graduation from BU.
Nov. Files first request for DNA testing. Denied without a hearing.
Jan. BU awards bachelor’s magna cum laude.
June Publishes “Notes from Prison,” Boston Magazine.
March Wins PEN Writing Award for Prisoners for “A Man Who Loves his Mother Loves Women.”
July Becomes eligible for parole, and is denied.
Oct. Publishes “Serpents of the Heart, Angels of the Soul.” Mass Dissent.
Jan. John Silber commits to finding and paying for a lawyer to pursue DNA test. Publishes “Suicide at the Stones,” The Angolite.
June Evidence from crime found in courthouse storage.
Dec. DA rejects request to negotiate a DNA testing protocol.
March Preliminary hearing on DNA testing.
April New Parole Board hearing.
Aug. Parole denied.
Publishes “Notes from Life and Death,” (Undoing Time, edited by Jeff Evans.)
Nov. New evidence shows that fingerprints on key evidence were not LaGuer’s.
Dec. New England Cable News (NECN) airs segment on new evidence.
Feb. NECN airs segment anticipating DNA test.
March DNA test implicates LaGuer. NECN airs segment on DNA result.
May NECN airs documentaries on the evolution of the case.
June Parole denied a second time.
DNA expert Lawrence Kobilinsky tells Worcester Telegram & Gazette that chain of custody raises serious issues.
Mike Barnicle slams LaGuer in television commentary based on infallibility of DNA.
Feb. Attorney James Rehnquist files motion for new trial based on fingerprint report withheld from the defense at trial.
DNA expert Tony Frudakis reports that quantity of LaGuer’s DNA found is consistent with contamination.
April Republishes “Quarantined Behind Stone and Steel,” (The Bastard on the Couch, edited by Dan Jones, HarperCollins.)
Sept. Motion denied for new trial.
May Transferred to Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.
Nov. DNA expert
Theodore Kessis submits requested findings to Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst).
March Appeals court affirms denial of a new trial.
Aug. Eric Goldscheider publishes “LaGuer Reconsidered,” Valley Advocate.
Oct. Deval Patrick attacked for prior support of LaGuer.
Jan. Joseph Early Jr. becomes Worcester DA. James Rehnquist argues case to Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).
Deval Patrick sworn in as governor.
March SJC upholds conviction.
April Eric Goldscheider publishes “Tragedy Times Two,” Valley Advocate.
July Transferred to NCCI Gardner.
Jan. Requests commutation from Gov. Deval Patrick.
March Former Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein agrees to represent LaGuer.
June John Archer holds fundraiser at his home in Danvers.
Jan. Eric Goldscheider teaches “Advocating for Justice,” through the Weissman Center of Mount Holyoke College.
June Parole denied a third time.
Joy James publishes “‘Campaigns against “Blackness”’: Criminality, Incivility, and Election to Executive Office,” Critical Sociology.
March Joy James publishes “The Case of Ben LaGuer and the 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial Election,” (Stanford University Press).
April Files motion for a new trial.
Nov. Admitted to ICU at Heywood Hospital in Gardner due to vomiting blood.
March Diagnosed with liver cancer.
July Parole denied a fourth time.
Jan. Appeals court affirms denial of a new trial.
Sept. Cancer deemed incurable.
April 13 Gov. Baker signs criminal justice reform law that includes medical parole.
April 27 LaGuer becomes first applicant for medical parole under the new law.
June Medical parole denied.
Oct. LaGuer appeals in Superior Court.
Dec. Eric Goldscheider publishes “Benjamin LaGuer Deserves a Break,” Commonwealth Magazine.
Jan. Court orders Dept. of Corrections (DOC) to reconsider medical parole.
March DOC denies parole.
Sept. Medical parole denied.
Jan. DOC denies medical parole.
Court hears arguments for judicial override of denial.
Feb. 5 Released on medical parole.
March 3 Reincarcerated a month after release.
Sept. LaGuer seeks “emergency review” of the DOC’s decision to deny medical parole.
Oct. Court hears “emergency review” petition.
Nov. 4 Dies in Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, Boston.
2021 (post mortem)
Feb. Special Collections and University Archives acquires LaGuer’s prison papers.
July 15 LaGuer’s ashes interred in the veterans’ section of Evergreen Cemetery in Leominster.