January 22 1987 - R. Budd Dwyer Shoots Himself on Live TV


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WHAT HAPPENED?


Robert Budd Dwyer was the 30th state treasure of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.


In the early 80's, it was discovered that Pennsylvania state workers had overpaid federal taxes due to errors in state withholding, though this all occurred before Dwyer's term. A multi-million dollar recovery contract was needed in order to determine the exact amount of compensation that each employee deserved.


In 1986, Dwyer was accused of accepting a bribe from the California firm that won the contract. He was found guilty of 11 different counts, including conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and more. He faced up to 55 years of imprisonment.


He was scheduled for sentencing on January 23, 1987. On January 22nd, he called a news conference where he committed suicide after vehemently proclaiming his innocence. It was broadcast across many Pennsylvania news outlets.


DWYER'S EARLY LIFE


Robert was born in St. Charles, Missouri on November 21st, 1939. He graduated from Allegheny College in 1961 with degrees in political science and accounting and was an active fraternity member.


He also earned a degree in education, and he taught social studies and coached football at a local high school.


He eventually got involved in politics, and served as a republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1965 to 1971, and was a member of the state senate from 1971 until 1981, when he took his role as state treasurer.


THE PRESS CONFERENCE


Dwyer had discussed the press conference with his press secretary on January 15th, a week before it was ultimately scheduled. He urged him not to use this forum as a means to attack the governor and anyone else involved in his conviction, and he assured him he wouldn't.


He had reached out to Ronald Reagan asking for a presidential pardon. He stated he was innocent, and that the uneducated and unsophisticated "rural" jury at his trial didn't understand the crux of the conviction. However, because the entire appeals process hasn't been exhausted, a presidential pardon wasn't even feasible.


He ultimately asked for a news conference, without providing any reason why. It was scheduled, and dozens of reporters were called and asked to come without providing a reason for the conference. Everyone assumed the press conference was being called as a means for him to give his formal resignation.


Before the conference began, the U.S. attorney who had secured the conviction against Dwyer made a statement saying that resigning was the appropriate path forward, and it would save a lot of time and aggravation.


The night before, Dwyer wrote a note saying how much he loved his family and how amazing the next 20 years could have been. He wrote that he hoped he could go through with it.


THE STATEMENT


Dwyer was described by many people who attended the conference as "nervous and agitated". Coming as a shock to the many people who expected a resignation, he professed his innocence and began reading from a 21-page letter of prepared remarks.


He rambled through his complaints about the justice system, he singled out those who were key players in his conviction, argued against his uneducated jury, and spoke out against the death penalty. As the speech started to creep up to the 30 minute mark, people began to pack up and leave, but he asked them not to put their cameras away yet because he wasn't done.


At this point, his press secretary was preparing to plan his own press conference later on to let the media know that he was in the dark on what he intended to say and that he didn't write this speech.


Once Dwyer reached the last page, he thanked God for the opportunity to do his job and for his wife and children. He was upset, feeling like he was losing his life as he knew it even though he didn't do anything. He called out the judge who was going to give him his sentence, and asked that people continue to support his family.


At this point, he stopped reading from his prepared remarks, saying he would not resign and that, while some people would see his actions today as just a sad, shocking story, he hoped people would understand that he was dying in the name of criminal justice reform.


Then, he asked those who had a weak stomach to leave immediately. He said he loved his wife and 2 children, and asked for his sacrifice to not be in vain. He handed 3 letters to 3 of his staffers: One was a letter to the Pennsylvania governor, one was his organ donor card and other related documents, and the third was materials for his family, including letters and recommended funeral arrangements.


THE DEATH


After he finished handing out the letters, he pulled out another envelope and pulled a gun out of it, causing everyone to panic.


He asked people to leave if they felt this would affect them. Some left to call for help, some tried to get him to surrender, and some tried to take the gun from him. As people tried to stop it, he uttered his last words: "Don't, don't, don't, this will hurt someone." Then, he fired a shot into his mouth and collapsed.


Five cameras recorded his death, causing his press secretary to ask the media to leave and for someone to call 911. He died immediately, and was pronounced dead 30 minutes later.


The story went out on the news midday. Some didn't show the footage, some cut off the video before he shot himself, letting the audio continue on, but a handful aired the full, unedited suicide.


THE AFTERMATH


Dwyer's wife and family got full survivor benefits because he technically died while he was still in office. Had he been sentenced, this wouldn't have been the case. Because it was a significant amount of money, many believe this was part of his motivation to commit suicide. With all of the legal costs coming their way, they would be struggling financially and he would be in jail, so it is a common belief that a portion of his reasoning was to support his family.


There is still question to whether or not he was innocent or guilty. The main witness, William Trickett Smith, has said on different occasions in different trials that he did offer Dwyer a bribe and that he didn't offer him the bribe. However, Dwyer died proclaiming his innocence.


R. Budd Dwyer, who by all accounts seemed like a decent man, shocked a nation and broke the hearts of his family when he decided to commit suicide during a recorded press conference 33 years ago today. And whether he accepted the bribe or not, it was a really sad, horrifying way to go.


REFERENCES

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._Budd_Dwyer

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