Friday, February 3, 2012

What we can learn from Budd Dwyer

Sunday January 22, 2012 saw the 25 anniversary of Budd Dwyer’s televised suicide. At the time Dwyer was serving as the treasurer of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  He had been convicted of accepting a bribe on a government accounting job and was awaiting sentence. Due to a legal loophole he was able to retain his office until sentencing. During the investigation, trial and afterwards he maintained his innocence, refusing an offer for plea bargaining. He even wrote President Regan seeking a presidential pardon. On the day before his sentencing, where he faced a sentence of up to 55 years in jail and a fine of $300,000, he held a press conference where he once again proclaimed his innocence and then declared he would not resign as treasurer. He then read from his prepared statement in which he expressed his wishes for reform in the legal system and he stated that people had told him that, “he looks foolish”(for fighting the charges) and “60 Minutes20/20, the ACLUJack Anderson, and others have been publicizing cases like yours for years and it doesn't bother anyone.” In part of his prepared text that he did not read, it said, “But to those of you with depth and concern the real story will be what I hope and pray results from this morning--in the coming months and years, the development of a true Justice System here in the United States." He then handed out a couple of letters to staffers, drew a revolver, asked those with a weak stomach to leave, told people to stand back so that they would not be injured, and shot himself in the head, committing suicide.

What makes this an important event to consider, was not the spectacle of a man ending his life in front of others, but the message that Budd wanted to send. That message was that innocent people get convicted, and the system needs to be reformed to protect the innocent. While many still believe that Dwyer was guilty of accepting a bribe and that he used his suicide as a way to avoid having to pay for being caught, I feel that his suicide was meant to focus on the terrible damage a wrongful conviction can cause. Had he just wanted to avoid prison there were other ways to end his life. Instead he willingly did something that he knew would overshadow every other thing he had done and become what his legacy, and he wanted that message to reach out and be talked about. It was a message about the fairness of our American justice system.

This is definitely something to be discussed. Whether or not Dwyer was really innocent, it is a fact that innocent people are put into our prisons; they even end up on death row. We know this because of the number of inmates that have been cleared on DNA evidence. The ACLU points out that as of September 2011, 273 people, including 17 death row inmates, have been exonerated by the use of DNA testing. This number can only be but a smaller subset of people wrongfully incarcerated. (

How do people get wrongfully convicted? There are several ways this happens. All of it starts with a wrongful accusation; either willfully or mistakenly the person is accused by another party as the actor in a crime. This can come about through shoddy police work or through a party bringing false charges. Why would this happen? There are several reasons. The police are frequently pressured to find the perpetrator of a high profile case and are then willing to rush through evidence gathering, focusing only on a small subset of evidence that points to one person, while ignoring other evidence that would exonerate that person; or they could find a person who is in an important position and want to make a name for themselves in prosecuting a public figure. Sometimes a perpetrator in another crime is given a deal to turn in accomplices for gaining them a lighter sentence. Such a deal would make it seem worthwhile to lie, and falsely accuse others. Other times a person can gain the upper hand in the dispute by falsely accusing the person they are having a dispute with. This illegal tactic can be used in divorce cases when a spouse will use false accusations of abuse to force an ex parte divorce and retain custody of children.

The majority of willing, wrongful accusations stems from the accuser making a simple cost/benefit analysis. In other words, do they think that the cost (in this case the probability of getting caught falsely accusing others and the price that would bring) is higher or lower than the value that they place on the result of the other person being convicted. For some criminals who are working under a deal where they point out an accomplice for reduced sentence, this begins to resemble the famous game in game theory “the prisoner’s dilemma.”

In the standard set up to explain “the prisoner’s dilemma” two perpetrators are arrested by the police who state that they have evidence to convict each of the perpetrators with a lesser crime for which they will serve a short jail sentence (1 year). However, if one of the perpetrators would be willing testify against the other they would let that witness go free, while the other would serve a much longer sentence (20 years). If both perpetrators testify against each other they both serve a middle length sentence( 5 years). Each perpetrator must now decide without knowing the others decision whether to talk or stay silent. So now we have two players (each perpetrator) and two different options for them to take (stay silent or testify). Graphically we can chart this as:
Looking at each player’s strategy, they are best served by testifying. This is because by testifying they receive fewer years in prison than staying silent for whatever choice the other player makes. The benefits of testifying are even greater when you know that the other player cannot testify because he doesn’t know what is going on and has no information to testify with. Hence, this is why false accusations look to be a good, although immoral, option to the criminal given a chance to make a deal.

Why would prosecutors be willing to make such a deal? As shown by “the prisoner’s dilemma” the prosecutor stands to make bigger convictions, as the total sentence time is longer in all other combinations than in the silent/silent combination. The prosecutor wants more and longer convictions because it proves to others that he is tough on crime, a stance that is very popular with the public and would aid the prosecutor should he run for political office. In fact there is a large amount of evidence that suggests some prosecuters will do almost anything to boost their conviction numbers. The blogger at Burney Law Firm writes:
3) The Inquirer points to the statistic that nearly 10,000 violent-crime defendants had their cases dropped or dismissed in ’06 and ’07.
Again, this means to us that the finger must be pointed squarely at the DA’s office. What the heck are they doing, charging 10,000 people with crimes they couldn’t prove? Cases get dropped or dismissed because they shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. This statistic shows an appalling lack of judgment on the part of the Philly prosecutors.
What are they doing, just charging everyone who got arrested? Perhaps. It’s a sad fact that there are some DA’s offices out there who think it’s their job to zealously advocate for the conviction of everyone who got arrested. But of course that is not only not their job, it’s unethical for them to behave that way.
Prosecutors are given enormous power and discretion, and it is an abuse of that discretion not to exercise it in the first place. They’re supposed to first figure out whether the case should and could be prosecuted, before wasting time and treasure on a pointless case, and dragging people through a horrific process. And they’re certainly not supposed to delegate their discretion to the police, who have neither the authority nor the purpose to exercise it. But those DA’s offices that simply take on every arrest are doing precisely that.
Maybe instead they’re just charging people without proof, in the hopes of getting a plea bargain, and hope nobody calls their bluff. That’s nothing short of criminal extortion, if true.
It should be nigh impossible to dismiss a case, unless there is newly-discovered evidence, or the interests of justice demand mercy. Otherwise, there ought to have been enough evidence to take the case to trial before charges were ever filed. This staggering statistic demonstrates that the DA’s office is charging thousands of people with crimes, when they had no business doing so.

Now that we understand why people can be falsely accused, how do they get falsely convicted? There are several reasons why someone could be falsely convicted. There could be misleading, missing or false evidence. There could be problems with the jury where they do not fully understand the complex laws in place here, or there could be jurors who are more willing to believe guilt than innocence. While the reasons are numerous and varied, it is clear that innocent people must be ready to protect themselves legally, especially if they lead lives that make them easy to accuse, such as the father who has a temper issue or the business person who is known for shady deals or the politician who competes for high office.

What can I do to protect myself? There are a number of things that can be done to protect yourself from wrongful conviction. First, watch this video:

It describes why you should not talk to police, and the dangers that you open yourself up to if you do.

Secondly, find out what attorneys are in your area and gather a few business cards from them. That way you can be ready to contact them right away if you are charged. Do your shopping now, while you have time and resources available. If you expect that you might be accused, it is a wise idea to put aside a large sum of money as your defense will be expensive--not only will you be paying for your attorney, but for expert witnesses as well. Finally, if you are accused you must educate yourself on the facts of your case and what you are being accused of. You will need to document your case and keep an account of every fact presented to you, so that you and your attorney can craft the best defense.  Ultimately though, two things stand out; you need to remain silent, and you will need a defense attorney that you can count on.

In this overview of what you have to do to protect yourself, one thing stands out;  the cost that your freedom can carry. While the Bill of Rights provides that you are given a defense attorney if you cannot afford one,  public defenders are frequently overloaded with cases, so that they cannot dedicate as much time to you as a private defense attorney can. They are frequently younger less experienced lawyers making them typically less effective than a more experienced lawyer. This means that those who cannot afford a private defense attorney have a disadvantage in the courtroom compared to those who have money set aside and are able to fund a proper defense.

In conclusion, we have seen that our criminal prosecution system, not only accuses innocent people, but convicts them. Not only that, but the willingness of prosecutors to offer deals to the accused to increase their conviction rate, comes at direct cost to innocent people. There are steps that you can take to protect yourself from wrongful prosecution, but for many their ability to defend themselves is limited by their low personal wealth. These are but a few of the topics that need to be addressed and that the story of Budd Dwyer calls out into the open.

For more information on wrongful conviction check out
And for a deeper look into Budd Dwyer and his story I suggest watching the movie “An Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer”