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Joseph Kaminski

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October 20, 2019

Case Study: R. Budd Dwyer’s Suicide

Robert Budd Dwyer, known as R. Budd Dwyer, was an American Republican politician in Pennsylvania during the early 1970s to the late 1980s. From social studies teacher to senator representing the Pennsylvanian 50th District to the Treasurer of the state itself, he rose through the ranks of society’s politics fairly quickly. However, like many politicians, Mr. Dwyer was caught up in a terrible scandal. No, he didn’t delete 18 minutes of anything; and no, he didn’t sleep with an intern. In fact, he might have done absolutely nothing at all. 

A picture taken seconds before Robert Dwyer's public suicide

A picture taken seconds before Robert Dwyer’s public suicide

During the early 1980s, public employees in Pennsylvania ended up paying millions of dollars over their designated amount in Federal Insurance Contribution Act taxes. FICA is imposed on employees and employers to fund Social Security and Medicare, two major federal programs that provide benefits for disabled employees, the retired, and children of deceased workers.

Afterwards, the state began soliciting bids from thousands of accounting firms to determine the refunds for the employees who paid too much. A major project that would cost the state way too much if placed in the wrong company’s hands, the idea of choosing the right accounting firm was rather important for straightening up the already idiotic error in the system. After searching through all the bids, the contract was awarded to California-based accounting firm known as Computer Technology Associates.

Almost as soon as Computer Technology Associates began working on the project, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Dick Thornburgh, received an anonymous memo detailing the possibilities and allegations of bribery revolving around the bidding process. In short, it expressed serious concern revolving around the $4.6 million (USD) contract.

Investigations were immediately undertaken by the United States Attorney, and Dwyer was eventually charged with receiving almost $300,000 (USD) in return for using the Pennsylvanian Treasury Office to hand the contract over to Computer Technology Associates. Dwyer wasn’t alone, however. The owner of the accounting firm, Mr. John Torquato, Jr, Torquato’s attorney William Smith, Smith’s wife, and Bob Asher, a former Republican Chairman for Pennsylvania, all went down with him.

In an attempt to receive lighter sentences, Torquato and Smith pled guilty and testified against Asher and Dwyer for the Federal Government. William Smith, the head attorney for Computer Technology Associates and John Torquato, much later admitted that he lied under oath about everything he said against Dwyer to receive a reduced sentence.

Dwyer, on the other hand, denied everything. Federal prosecutors only threw a single charge of bribe receiving, which would have meant a maximum of five years imprisonment and a resignation from his office as Treasurer of Pennsylvania, but he refused. He believed that by giving in he would look guilty, and that the investigation would have used it as evidence of him being guilty. Dwyer instead decided to go to a full-on trial.

On December 18th, 1986, Dwyer was convicted of his charge. He continued to claim he was innocent, as did his family and close friends. Reaching the end of his rope, he wrote to then-President Ronald Reagan pleading for a presidential pardon to get him out of the mess entirely. Despite being convicted, Dwyer remained state treasurer until his sentencing on January 23rd, 1987. Afterwards, he faced a sentence of up to 55 years — fifty more than he would have had if he would have just backed down from the federal investigation — and a fine equal to the amount he was claimed to have taken in bribes, $300,000.

On January 22, 1987, one day before his sentencing, Dwyer called a press conference. All major newspapers and news channels appeared in hopes of getting the first inside look of his “resignation”, believing that was what the press conference was called for. Nervous, agitated, and scared; Dwyer began the press conference by declaring his innocence and quoting “rambling polemic about the criminal justice system” from a pre-written and prepared text he had written. He spoke out against the death penalty and expressed great concern and regret for voting in favor of it as a member of the Republican Pennsylvania Assembly.

As he reached the final page of his speech, he spoke these words:

I thank the Good Lord for giving me 47 years of exciting challenges, stimulating experiences, many happy occasions, and, most of all, the finest wife and children any man could ever desire.

Now my life has changed for no apparent reason. People who call and write are exasperated and feel helpless. They know I’m innocent and want to help. But in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime they know I did not commit. Some who have called have said that I am a modern-day job.

Judge Muir is also noted for his medieval sentences. I face a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine for being innocent. Judge Muir has already told the press that he, quote, ‘felt invigorated’ when we were found guilty, and that he plans to imprison me as a deterrent to other public officials. But it wouldn’t be a deterrent because every public official who knows me knows that I am innocent; it wouldn’t be a legitimate punishment because I’ve done nothing wrong. Since I’m a victim of political persecution, my prison would simply be an American gulag.

I ask those that believe in me to continue to extend friendship and prayer to my family, to work untiringly for the creation of a true justice system here in the United States, and to press on with the efforts to vindicate me, so that my family and their future families are not tainted by this injustice that has been perpetrated on me.

We were confident that right and truth would prevail, and I would be acquitted and we would devote the rest of our lives working to create a justice system here in the United States. The guilty verdict has strengthened that resolve. But as we’ve discussed our plans to expose the warts of our legal system, people have said, ‘Why bother, no one cares.’ ‘You’ll look foolish.’ ’60 Minutes, 20/20, the ACLU, Jack Anderson, and others have been publicizing cases like yours for years and it doesn’t bother anyone.’

At that point, he quit reading. Perhaps Robert Dwyer just couldn’t bring himself to reading the final paragraph he had written. He refused to continue reading. What was written on the paper that he did not read is as follows:

I’ve repeatedly said that I’m not going to resign as State Treasurer. After many hours of thought and meditation I’ve made a decision that should not be an example to anyone because it is unique to my situation. Last May I told you that after the trial, I would give you the story of the decade. To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story. 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. I am going to die in office in an effort to …see if the shameful 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 – 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.

Instead of reading his prepared final words, he called three members of his staff to appear on the stage, giving each an envelope. The first envelope contained a suicide note addressed to his wife. The second contained an organ donor card. The third envelope contained a letter addressed to new Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, who had taken office two days prior to this press conference.

Dwyer then produced his own envelope — a manila one with a Smith & Wesson Model 27 .357 caliber revolver inside. He spoke to the gathered crowd as he brought the gun to everyone’s attention: “Please, please leave the room if this will…” he paused, sweating and slightly shaking, “if this will affect you.”

Despite the pleads being shouted at him, the people running out to get help, and the people trying to approach him, Dwyer refused to put the gun down. He advised everyone to stay away, as “this will hurt someone.” As the few brave men around him continued to attempt to make him reconsider, Dwyer turned the gun towards himself. He opened his mouth, inserted the gun, and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through his head, causing him to collapse to the floor.

But remember, this was a press conference. Five news cameras recorded everything, and every important journalist in the state was on scene. Over the next few hours, news studios debated and scattered over just how much graphic footage could be showed on air. Despite the panic, many television stations broadcast taped footage of Dwyer’s suicide to their audiences that same day. Some channels showed Dwyer pulling the trigger and falling backwards, but did not show the bullet path or blood. Many stations froze the action the frame prior to the actual gunfire. Some decided to only play audio under a frozen image. Society sure has changed since then, as you can now find an unedited, uncensored video of the scene on the internet.

Since Dwyer died in office, his widow Joanne was able to collect full survivor benefits, totaling over $1.28 million — much more than the $300,000 he supposedly gained from bribes. A spokesman for Dwyer later suggested that he may have only committed suicide to preserve the state-provided pension for his family, whose finances had been ruined by legal defense costs.

Perhaps one of the most shocking cases of suicide, Robert Dwyer’s case has been labeled as the “ethnomethodological approach to the study of suicide” and has helped psychologists understand the signs of planned self harm. Stressed, innocent, out of options, out of money, and a heavy love for his family — Robert Budd Dwight gave it all up during his public suicide. Perhaps he was narcissistic, as he decided to commit his final moments to a press conference — or perhaps he wanted to prove to the world what his final thoughts actually were. Smith, the attorney who spoke against him, revealed in a biography that he gave false testimony under oath, making him responsible for Dwyer’s death.

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