Starting defensive cornerback Andrew P. Puopolo ’77 was stabbed during an altercation with three black men in Boston’s notorious Combat Zone, and died from these wounds on Dec. 17 1976, one month later.
Puopolo and his teammates were celebrating the end of the football season at this traditional spot—a consortium of prostitutes, back alleys, and lawlessness.
“It’s a two-block radius of strip joints and titty bars,” recalls fellow teammate Stewart K. Shofner ’77. “By the end of the night, the Harvard football team had taken over the stage—stripping off their clothes, dancing with the girls. In our mindset, we were taking over that part of the city. Testosterone-driven, fueled by alcohol—we were confident.”
The celebratory atmosphere turned sour when they took to the streets, according to Shofner, and a prostitute reached into their van and felt up Charles F. Kaye ’78, robbing him of his wallet in the process.
Puopolo chased after the woman, encountering three men who came to her aid, one of which was Leon Easterling—the man who allegedly delivered the fatal blow.
Boston police detective Edward Miller, who served on the vice control unit at the time, testified in court that the men who frequent the Combat Zone often assist prostitutes in stealing from young men.
“There seems to be no law at the Combat Zone,” says teammate Joe Kross ’79, nearly 30 years after the incident. “Kind of like the Red District.”
A zealous prosecution handed Easterling and alleged accomplices Edward Soares and Richard S. Allen a first-degree murder conviction with life sentences without the possibility of parole.
But two years later, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court afforded the three men a new trial, ruling that the prosecution misused preemptory challenges to eliminate jurors on the basis of race. Assistant District Attorney Thomas J. Mundy Jr. used preemptory challenges, which typically allow attorneys to reject potential jurors without explanation, to eliminate 12 of the 13 black jurors up for grabs.
With the reversal, Massachusetts joined California as the second state to prohibit the use of preemptory challenges purely on the basis of race.
This decision flew in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1965 decision in Swain v. Alabama, which had allowed race to be a consideration.
An emphatic critic of the Swain decision, Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, who remains an outspoken Harvard law professor, lamented then that the three alleged attackers were given a second chance.
“It’s tragic that the alleged killers of an outstanding young man could be vehicles for striking down a bad rule,” said Dershowitz then. “But Swain is one of the worst abominations of American constitutional justice.”
The revisiting of the Puopolo trial began on Oct. 16 1979, rehashing fresh memories and sending a bevy of Harvard students to the stand for a second time.
“It was a very catastrophic thing to happen,” says Kross. “You know, young guys just starting to have their own life and seeing the life of one of their good friends gone—it’s pretty difficult to understand.”
The second trial proved to be a boon for the defendants: two were acquitted and Easterling was handed the lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 to 20 years at the Mass. State Penitentiary.
A disappointed Kross told The Crimson the day after the acquittals that unlike the three defendants, his friend Puopolo had not been given a second chance.
Reflecting on the event, the now middle-aged Kross tries to look for the positive. He says that each year, ex-football players kick off Harvard-Yale weekend with an alumni football game with proceeds donated to the Andrew Puopolo Scholarship Fund.
Shofner, who conceived of the idea, depicts Pupolo as an aspiring physician, religious and widely liked.
“He was just a very together individual who was aware of his goodness but wasn’t arrogant enough to expect you to,” says Shofner. “You couldn’t help but admire his smile, his laughter, his leadership.”
—Staff writer Robin M. Peguero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.