Assuming that the late former Enron vice Chairman Cliff Baxter died by his own hand and not the hands of others who feared he might testify against them, you might blame Baxter's suicide on guilt, shame, or fear of financial ruin. Linda Lay, wife of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, blames the media: "Cliff was a wonderful man," Mrs. Lay lamented in a nationally televised interview; his apparent suicide "is a perfect example of how the media can play such havoc and destruction in people's lives."
There's nothing new about efforts to scapegoat the media, and these sometimes seem justified by the sins of tabloid journalism. But for every victim of the press, there are many legitimate targets, from Richard Nixon and O.J. Simpson to Gary Condit and Kenneth Lay. Often, media scapegoating simply reflects an effort to evade individual accountability. People who resent being caught sometimes blame the press for their downfall -- as if reporting crime is worse than committing it.
Linda Lay's clumsy attack on the press is unlikely to distract many people from the sins of Enron executives or the consequent suffering of employees and shareholders. But people with power often succeed in suppressing vital public information that would incriminate or embarrass them. President Bush has a strong affinity for secrecy: He has issued an executive order delaying the legally mandated release of papers from previous presidential administrations and sequestered his own gubernatorial records in his father's presidential library in order to evade the requirements of Texas's Public Information Act. His administration has ordered federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information Act requests, refused to answer questions about Vice President Dick Cheney's energy-policy meetings, and denied a congressional request for Justice Department memos concerning the FBI's murderous 30-year collaboration with Boston-area gangsters.
As the Bush administration is learning, however, attempts by presidents to keep public information private are likely to attract press attention and lawsuits. Lesser officials keep secrets with less public scrutiny. Consider efforts by prosecutors to hide evidence of wrongful convictions. Peter Neufeld, co-founder of Cardozo School of Law's Innocence Project, estimates that during the past 10 years prosecutors have opposed postconviction DNA typing in about half of the cases in which it has been requested. Boston-based defense attorney Harvey Silverglate observes that sometimes prosecutors even oppose requests for new trials after testing has virtually exonerated a convicted defendant.
Take the case of 41-year-old Bruce Godschalk. He spent the past 15 years in prison for two rapes committed in a Philadelphia suburb in 1986. He was convicted on the basis of a confession, which he insists was coerced and effectively written by the interrogating detective, who supplied him with unpublicized facts about the crime. In addition, one victim chose his photo from a group of mug shots; the other victim was unable to make an identification. Godschalk had no record of violence and two prior arrests -- for possession of marijuana and for driving while impaired.
Godschalk spent seven years trying to arrange for DNA testing of the evidence in his case, at his own expense. Montgomery County prosecutor Bruce Castor refused to allow testing, relying on what he claimed was an irrefutable confession (although if the confession were true, he had no need to fear the test). Finally, in November 2001, Godschalk obtained a ruling from a federal judge ordering DNA tests, which definitively
exonerated him. The prosecutor's own laboratory and a lab hired by the defense concluded that both rapes were committed by the same person, who could not have been Bruce Godschalk.
At first, Castor persisted in opposing Godschalk's release, although he acknowledged having "no scientific basis" for doubting the test results. He simply assumed that "the tests must be flawed" because they contradicted the claims of the interrogating detective in the case. Finally, on February 14, after additional testing and some bad publicity, Castor grudgingly gave in: "I'm not convinced that Bruce Godschalk is
innocent . . . but a tie goes to the defendant."
Given the new DNA evidence, Godschalk seemed bound to be set free eventually, partly because as the criminal-justice system begins to rely on DNA tests to convict people, it will have to accept DNA tests that exonerate people (one hopes). Opposition to testing is beginning to ease, and 22 states have passed laws providing convicted inmates with access to DNA tests under some circumstances. But inmates who may have been wrongly convicted still have no generally acknowledged right to obtain DNA testing, and the public has no acknowledged right to know when innocent people have been imprisoned or executed. In January 2002, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that convicts have no constitutional right to DNA testing; and in May 2001, a state court in Virginia denied a motion by a group of newspapers for DNA testing in the case of Roger Coleman, who was executed for murder in 1992, despite questions about his guilt.
This ruling in the Coleman case makes sense only if the goal of prosecutors and judges is to spare the state the embarrassment of exposing the execution of an innocent man and to suppress public knowledge of fatal flaws in the criminal-justice system. Imagine if hospitals openly refused to uncover and divulge readily obtainable information about the number of people who died as a result of botched procedures, about grossly negligent care, or about doctors and nurses who purposefully maim or murder their patients -- like prosecutors and police officers who knowingly convict the innocent.
The truth may hurt, but it's lies that are liable to kill us.