D'Alessandro has been singularly focused on seeking justice for Joan Angela D'Alessandro since that horrible day - April 19, 1973 - when her daughter was sexually assaulted and fatally strangled while delivering Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor, Joseph McGowan.
McGowan, 62, a former high school chemistry teacher incarcerated for the killing at East Jersey State Prison, is eligible for parole in January. He got a life sentence, but became eligible for parole after 14 years.
D'Alessandro is determined to make sure he isn't released, so she'll testify before the Parole Board on Wednesday, the third time in 15 years she's relived a nightmare to persuade the state to keep her daughter's killer behind bars.
"In order to go through this," D'Alessandro said, "you have to get into that place and open that wound - or else you cannot make them understand. You'll just be too matter of fact. The struggle won't show, what you've had to go through."
D'Alessandro successfully lobbied for state and federal versions of Joan's Law, which eliminates parole eligibility for any criminal convicted of murdering a child under 14 during commission of a sex crime.
She keeps a copy of the law President Clinton signed in 1998 on a wall in her Bergen County home. New Jersey was the first state to pass Joan's Law in 1997; New York passed a similar law in 2004.
The laws D'Alessandro spearheaded keep other mothers from having to testify at the parole hearings of their children's killers, but, ironically, they don't shield her because they were enacted after Joan's murder. McGowan's life sentence made him eligible for parole after 14 years.
The previous two times McGowan came up for parole, in 1993 and 1998, D'Alessandro gave statements from her home. This time, however, she has chosen to give her testimony in person.
"I want them to see my face," she explained. "It's going to be one or two people hearing my testimony. One of those people is going to be the same person that is hearing Joseph McGowan." Parole Board spokesman Neal Buccino said the purpose of such hearings is to allow violent crime victims' family members the chance to tell how the crime has affected them and their ability to work and live.
"The Parole Board values victim imput because it allows them to put a face on the crime that was committed and the suffering that was inflicted," Buccino said.
McGowan's legal representation could not immediately be determined through Corrections or the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office.
D'Alessandro says she'll tell the board that Joan was someone special. Confident and happy, the girl was a good dancer who liked ballet. She was very sociable and compassionate, and liked to tell jokes. Her favorite color was green.
"Even when she would sing "Happy Birthday," there was a theatrical quality to it," he mother remembers. "I used to wonder, if she had the chance to have a normal life and grow up, if she would have gone into the theater. She loved music a lot."
Some of D'Alessandro's grief has found an outlet in civic activism. Besides lobbying for Joan's Law, she fought to have the two-year statute of limitations removed for families to file wrongful death lawsuits in cases of murder and manslaughter, then sued McGowan under the law she helped get passed.
Today, she runs the Joan Angela D'Alessandro Foundation, a grassroots effort to promote child protection and children's rights, and provide relief to neglected and abused children. D'Alessandro raises money mostly through yard sales, and this year was able to provide season passes to Six Flags Great Adventure to several children in foster care.
She's also a member of the Surviving Parents Coalition, a group dedicated to preventing predatory crimes against children.
D'Alessandro says she never wanted to see McGowan receive the death penalty, but is equally committed to keeping him from being released. So far, the justice system has seen it her way.
Writing for a New Jersey Court of Appeals panel in 2002, Judge Lorraine C. Parker said that McGowan "has made no substantial progress in addressing the issues that led him to murder the child in 1973; he has regressed in that he now denies his earlier pedophiliac fantasies and tendencies, he has lied and manipulated evaluators, played 'word games' during parole hearings and demonstrated a substantial risk for recidivism."
In an earlier parole denial, the state Parole Board said McGowan has the personality of a "mass murderer."
For D'Alessandro, there's something more hurtful, too. "He's never shown any remorse," she says. "In 35 years, I have never even gotten a note or anything. It's like he blocks it out, as if Joan never even existed."
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