January 15, 1987 An Innocent Man

Wrongful convictions happen for many reasons. Prosecutors hide evidence. Incompetent defense counsel. Mistaken identity and ulterior motives, on the part of witnesses.

Were there a catalog of lies, there may be none more egregious than the false accusation.  No matter how he tries, the victim of such a falsehood will never prove a negative.

Wrongful convictions happen for many reasons. Prosecutors hide evidence. Incompetent defense counsel. Mistaken identity and ulterior motives, on the part of witnesses.

Interior views of traditional prison

Accurate numbers are all but impossible to determine, but we can make an educated guess. A study conducted by Ohio State University surveyed 188 judges, prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs and police chiefs. The survey found that 75% of respondents believed that more than zero and less than 1 percent of convictions, were unjust. Taking the middle number of .5 percent and a rough estimate of 195,000 convictions per year works out to 9,750 wrongful convictions. Every year. (H/T Housley Law blog for these statistics, which states there have been 1,962 exonerations nationwide, since 1989).

Feel free to make any assumptions you like concerning these numbers but one thing is sure. To assume there are no wrongful convictions is to believe that government does everything right, all of the time.

Graduating from Allegheny College in 1961, Robert Budd Dwyer set his sights on elective office.  The future looked bright.

First elected State Rep in 1964, the Pennsylvania Republican ran successfully for state Senate in 1970 and then for state-wide office, elected Treasurer, in 1980.

In 1986, Pennsylvania officials discovered that state employees had overpaid millions in FICA taxes, due to errors in state withholding. Several accounting firms bid for the contract to determine, how much compensation was due each employee. The contract was awarded to California based Computer Technology Associates (CTA), owned by Harrisburg native, John Torquato Jr.

Governor Dick Thornburg received an anonymous memo a few weeks later, alleging bribery in the award of the CTA contract. R. Budd Dwyer was named as one of the people receiving kickbacks in the deal along with Republican committee member Bob Asher, and CTA attorney William ‘Bill’ Smith.

Anonymous accusations are such a cowardly tactic.

No money ever changed hands. The CTA contract was canceled two months after it was signed. Even so, prosecutors pushed the case for everything it was worth.

Most criminal cases end in plea deals, and not in trials. Smith pleaded guilty to offering Dwyer and Asher $300,000 in bribes and received a reduced sentence. Torquato also pleaded guilty and received a sentence, of 4 years. Adamantly proclaiming his innocence, Budd Dwyer refused a plea deal: a guilty plea on one count and a sentence, of five years. Dwyer was adamant, and demanded a trial. “I absolutely did nothing wrong”.

On December 18, 1986, Budd Dwyer was found guilty. Conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. Eleven counts.

Judge Malcolm Muir hinted at a sentence, of 55 years. Many believe the man wanted to make an example, of Budd Dwyer. Sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987.

On December 15, 1987, Dwyer held a meeting at his home with press secretary James Horshock, and Deputy Treasurer Don Johnson. With a week to go before sentencing, Dwyer wanted to make a statement, to the press.

Budd Dwyer addresses the press on January 22, 1987. It would be his last press conference.

The meeting was scheduled for January 22, the day before sentencing.

In a rambling speech before the press, R. Budd Dwyer proclaimed his innocence. He said how much he’d enjoyed his life with his wife Joanne and the couple’s kids, Rob and Dyan. He reflected on what a bright future it could have been.

“I am going to die in office” he said, “in an effort to ‘…see if the shame[-ful] facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.’ Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S.

Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don’t want to cause physical or mental distress.

Joanne, Rob, DeeDee [sic] – I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Goodbye to you all on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.”

Pandemonium broke out as R. Budd Dwyer took out a briefcase, and a .357 magnum pistol. He put the gun in his mouth and blew his brains out.

You can find the video online if you want, it was all on camera. I’m not going to show it.

Joanne never for a moment doubted her husband’s innocence but she never forgave herself for failing to notice, how the man was struggling. She took heavily to drink, perhaps to self-medicate and died in 2009, an alcoholic.

Former chair of the Dauphin County Republican Committee Bill Smith has made contradictory statements under oath and expressed regret for lying, and the role it played in Dwyer’s death.

Subsequent court proceedings never did overturn Dwyer’s conviction, but the Treasurer was able to provide for his family. Having died in office, Dwyer’s widow Jo received full survivor’s benefits of $1.28 million.

Dyan “DeeDee”, now a married mother of two, has lived a private life. Rob, now a realtor in Arizona, has been quite public about his own difficulties, in dealing with his father’s suicide. ‘I’d tell anyone thinking about suicide’ he said, ‘that the scars and the emotional toll that it leaves on those left behind, is immense.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

12 thoughts on “January 15, 1987 An Innocent Man”

  1. When I hear how relieved people are when some guy is charged with a reviled crime — ‘Did they catch him? They did? Well, that’s a relief!’ — I mentally hear the phrase, ‘We’ll give ’im a fair trial, then we’ll hang ’im.’

    And if I’d point out he may be the wrong guy who’s being railroaded, I could receive the erroneous refrain, ‘Well if he’s truly innocent, he has nothing to worry about.’

    It is why I believe that the news-media should refrain from publishing the identity of people charged with a crime—especially one of a repugnant nature, for which they are jailed pending trial (as is typically done)—until at least after they’ve been convicted?

    Especially when considering the flaws—even corruption—in the law-enforcement and justice system, no one should have their name permanently tarnished and life potentially ruined because the news-media insists upon immediately running a breaking story.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds true.

        Up here, we have near-monopoly corporate news-media (i.e. Postmedia’s ownership of almost every major print publication in Canada) who are formally allied with one of the planet’s greatest polluting solid forms of “energy” — tarsands product.

        During one of its presentations, it was stated: “Postmedia and CAPP [Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] will bring energy to the forefront of our national conversation. Together, we will engage executives, the business community and the Canadian public to underscore the ways in which the energy sector powers Canada.”

        Also, a then-publisher of a Postmedia national newspaper said: “From its inception, the National Post has been one of the country’s leading voices on the importance of energy to Canada’s business competitiveness internationally and our economic well-being in general. We will work with CAPP [Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] to amplify our energy mandate and to be a part of the solution to keep Canada competitive in the global marketplace. The National Post will undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.”

        Like

  2. Great story, and I remember the event. Admittedly, I’ve not been overly concerned by kleptocracy politicians shooting themselves or each other. None of my libertarian-leaning co-workers ever had a clue or cared what the frame-up was even about. The important thing at the time was the Great American impromptu joke: “Do you know the difference between Bud Fry and Bud Light?”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember when this happened… and it shouldn’t have happened and affected 4 lives or more because of greed. Smith got in a lot of trouble afterwards I believe…even after serving his 4 year deal.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I found Smith’s role to be a little confusing. He’s stated under oath that he both did and did not bribe those guys, so what are we supposed to believe? I would say that qualifies for a reasonable doubt and the man should have been acquitted, but that’s not how it worked out. It’s been said we have a Legal system, and not a Justice system. As much as I hate it i think it’s true.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I don’t like the idea of an “example” because you are treating one different than someone else in the same circumstances.
        I read about Smith…he was troubled after he got out of prison to say the least.

        Yes I believe you are right.

        Liked by 2 people

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