The other day in our speech class at King’s, I asked students if they ever had the courage to talk about controversial or unpopular issues with their friends.
I’ve come to discover that getting people of any age to stand tall in the saddle on certain issues makes them a bit squeamish. It might be that they don’t feel informed enough to discuss certain issues. Discussions on stem cell research, gun control, illegal immigration can be tricky, and today’s generation seems reserved when offering opinions on these topics. They want to keep the peace and not upset anyone. This, of course, can change once they find their voices.
The death penalty is also a stickler. We talked about it briefly the other day and one student, to my surprise, was quick to offer an opinion.
“Whatever they did to someone else, the same should be done to them,” she stated with great conviction. We also discussed if this should extend to crimes like stealing, where a hand can be the cost in other countries.
“How do we know for sure they’re guilty?” I asked, referring to the Innocence Project. According to their website, the Innocence Project has exonerated 266 individuals the system determined as guilty. The question of guilt or innocence in some cases seems cut and dried, but is it always as it seems?
Many have formed an opinion about R. Budd Dwyer, Pennsylvania’s former treasurer. The image that most people have of Dwyer is a black and white photo taken on Jan. 22, 1987 at a press conference. The day before his sentencing on a conviction of taking illegal campaign donations from a vendor, Dwyer called the media together, handed out a envelopes, spoke briefly, pulled a .357 out of a paper bag and committed suicide as the cameras rolled. He was facing a 55-year prison sentence and a $300,000 fine.
I remember the day vividly. It was snowing here and students from King’s I knew were out of class and watching television in Senunas’ Bar. Even then, the whole situation seemed surreal, but many concluded that Dwyer's drastic action was a sign of his guilt, and his shocking death became a media sensation. According to an email I received from a listener, “Days of Our Lives” was even interrupted with a bulletin about Dwyer. I never considered him anything but guilty.
James Dirschberger, a California filmmaker, grew up in Buffalo and began following the Dwyer story. Curious about the case, he began asking questions about the politician, who grew up on a farm, became a teacher and seemed to pursue a career in public service for all the right reasons. So, what went wrong? Dirschberger appeared on WILK on Monday to discuss his film, “Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer” and offer his opinion on the case. He called Dwyer’s conviction “a perfect storm” of unfortunate circumstances. Dirschberger pointed to the failings of the jury. He offered that Dwyer’s attorney never put a witness on the stand in the case, believing that the prosecution hadn’t proven theirs. He said the government had deep pockets and Dwyer’s appeal would have cost him $30,000 or better out of his own. He said Dwyer’s conviction meant the loss of his pension. After his suicide, his wife did collect Dwyer’s pension, leading some to believe this was the reason for his decision.
Dirschberger believes Dwyer was indeed an honest man who became a victim of circumstance, including overzealous prosecution, a lousy jury, terrible legal representation and a daunting prison sentencing staring him the face. Unfortunately, that image will never overcome the photograph of a desperate man with an unstable look on his face holding a gun.
In retrospect, this makes “eye for an eye” justice a little blind at times. It also shines a light on the fact that not all cases are handled properly. The jury remains out in the minds of some about the case of R. Budd Dwyer.
The audio of the interview with James Dirschberger can be heard on www.wilknewsradio.com