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How a DA – and mayoral candidate – scored politically with ‘Strangler’ case

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley played it beautifully last week in breaking the news that Boston police were on the verge of establishing a DNA link between Albert DeSalvo, known as the Boston Strangler, and Mary Sullivan, a 19-year-old who was murdered in her Beacon Hill apartment some 49 years ago.

Conley, one of 12 candidates vying for Boston’s mayoralty, scheduled his press conference for the morning that positions on September’s municipal ballot were being awarded by the traditional method of lottery.

The ballot lottery meant that the mayor’s race, which has been overshadowed first by the special US Senate election and then the ongoing trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, would make a rare and welcome media splash.

Conley surfed that wave with skill.

While the other mayoral hopefuls were gathered in Boston City Hall to let fate take its course, to play their supporting roles as actors in a bigger story, the public saw Conley presented as a newsmaker.

There was Conley, flanked on one side by Attorney General Martha Coakley, a possible candidate for governor, and on the other by Police Commissioner Ed Davis, who since the Marathon terror attack has enjoyed the status of a local John Wayne.

It was good company, and it will play well if repurposed for campaign commercials. The five ads that Conley will air beginning this week are of a more general nature.

Unless you are of a certain age, it might be difficult to grasp the political significance of proving beyond a shadow of doubt that DeSalvo was, in fact, the legendary Strangler. He died in prison in 1975, stabbed by another prisoner while he was serving a life sentence for multiple rapes.

DeSalvo admitted to police that he strangled 11 women between the years of 1962 and 1964 across a killing field that ranged from Boston to Lawrence and from Cambridge to Salem.

He was, however, never convicted of those murders. The evidence was not strong enough and DNA, though discovered in 1953, was not accepted in court until 1986.

During the Strangler years, I was 10 and 11, growing up on Arbella Road near the Charles Taylor School with my parents and five brothers and sisters. I do not remember the newspaper accounts, but I do recall the somber tones used by radio newsmen when they reported on the case.

More striking was the general reticence of adults and the free-floating anxiety of women. My aunt Kay, a single career girl (in the terminology of the day) at some point during the scare moved out of her cozy Kenmore Square apartment and in with us. Family was still a woman’s best friend. And after dark, my dad would drive the young unmarried women who lived across the street from us in their late parents’ house to and from their errands.

The fear was real. But it was internalized. Mass media had not yet commoditized terror. The Strangler was like a phenomenon out of Alfred Hitchcock: shadowy, if not invisible; omnipresent but still elusive. The fact that he raped and killed by using nylon stockings as a garrote colored the crimes real-life noir. Older voters, especially women, will not have forgotten how they felt when the Strangler was at large.

Older voters tend to be more conservative, and they tend to vote in larger numbers than the electorate at large. And among elderly voters, women predominate.

Conley, who is already presumed to be a candidate with traditional appeal, fortified his allure with his bid to nail down DeSalvo’s guilt. As well executed as Conley’s DeSalvo play was, it is – in the larger scheme of the campaign – just a single round. It is not going to win him the election. But in a sprawling race where voter turnout is expected to be low, it will be the accumulation of small, well-defined scores that powers victory.

There is, however, a potential downside for Conley.

Not counting the deaths attributable to the Marathon Day bombings, Boston has recorded almost 30 murders to date, plus a slew of unsolved killings from previous years. In addition, since the bombings, 85 shootings have taken place, the majority of them occurring in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester.

Gang-style gunplay in those areas is a long-standing point of concern. The outpouring of public support for the victims of the Marathon attack intensified that worry. There is a feeling in many quarters of the black community that while the nature of neighborhood violence and a terrorist attack are very different, the responses to each nevertheless speaks volumes about public priorities.

That is debatable, but it will be interesting to see if Conley can further capitalize on his DeSalvo gambit. And it will be even more interesting to see if one or more candidates can spin it around to focus on the low-level but persistent terror that plagues parts of Boston every day.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”

Peter Kadzis is a contributor to WGBH News.