Yes, True is sometimes a touch raw. Usually it works out fine — it’s balanced well between tragedy (like a school committing a grievous Zero-Tolerance punishment on a truly innocent kid) and comedy. But now and then, after I’ve written an issue, something comes up that tilts the balance, and the result is awkwardly off-kilter.
Such is what happened last week: the lead story (below) happened to be about a guy who was caught after doing something incredibly stupid, and in response he committed suicide. That almost certainly would have been an OK lead story with most people, except that then the Virginia Tech carnage happened. Being on the road didn’t help; I was speaking at a conference, and was putting the issue together in the hospitality suite, begging my hosts for “a few more minutes” so I could quickly dash off an editorial on the subject to include in the issue before we headed to dinner.
Here’s the story, from the 15 April 2007 issue:
There He Goes, Shooting His Mouth Off Again
Joseph Kopera, 61, head of Maryland State Police’s firearms unit, was often called on to give expert testimony in court cases. To establish his credentials for the jury, he would rattle off the list of his college degrees. “He’s one of the most compelling experts I’ve seen in a courtroom,” said defense attorney Roland Walker, who has worked on at least 50 cases Kopera was involved in. There’s only one minor problem: Kopera’s college degrees were made up, according to investigators from The Innocence Project, which works to free people who are wrongly convicted of crimes. In fact, Kopera had no college degrees at all, and was only a high school graduate. Once confronted with this fact, Kopera immediately retired from his 37-year career and went home — where he killed himself with a gunshot to the head. (Baltimore Sun) …That’s one way to show he had some level of expertise.
Richard in Louisiana was one who wrote last week. He said:
God knows I’m never accused of hypersensitivity, and I can find something to laugh at in almost any set of circumstances. I nevertheless find it necessary to tell you that I wish you had not included the opening story about the suicide in [last] week’s edition. Do I think he was wrong to lie about his degrees? Of course. Do I think he should have shut down his career? Arguable, but probably. Do I think he over-reacted? Yes. But speaking as an individual with a lifelong history of clinical depression, I can understand his response. And, frankly, anyone who cared about him as a person (wife, child, parent, sibling or friend) would be rightly appalled to see him as the subject of a ‘This Is True’ story.
The Point is Still Valid
It’s probably impossible for Richard (let alone me) to say whether or not the story would have passed his muster during a normal week, but I would think about half the subjects of my articles (or their families) would be a bit appalled to see themselves the subject of a This is True story.
What’s the point of including that particular story? To get people to think. But let me be more specific: I find it constructive to ridicule suicide since it is, in fact, a ridiculous way to escape what are often fairly petty problems, rather than facing up to them and helping to clean up the mess they’re in (or caused).
The subject of last week’s lead story is a good example: he created a huge legal and political mess, but he would have survived the scandal. Yet he took an “easy” way out and left the problem for others to deal with without his help. That’s not a reasonable solution — and I don’t think anyone would disagree, even if you can understand his impulse.
It Really Is a Scandal
Pter in New Zealand puts his finger on it even more specifically:
The worst thing is that he has now opened the way for every case he ever acted as an expert witness for to be trashed, possible compensation lawsuits, etc. Letting criminals out on technicalities, costing the country dollars and misery. Just because he thought his years of experience in the field wouldn’t weigh as well with a jury as a list of degrees. Idiot.
Exactly. People caught in such a situation often don’t think very clearly. Kopera, having been at hundreds of shootings, knew exactly what he was doing; he knew more than just about anyone what sort of scene he was leaving behind.
And he surely weighed a number of factors before making his decision. If he could have weighed in criticism for his actions, might he made a different choice? Yes — he might have. And frankly, I think it’s worth it to criticize him, even mockingly, so that others might think a bit more clearly when considering such a choice.
Saying “Awww, that’s really too bad. I can sure understand why he did it” may sound like a nice thing to say, but it validates and thus encourages suicide. And I just will not do that. I’d rather be on the side of depreciating such a choice, maybe prompting those in a pickle to take another look at their options, and maybe make a different decision.
Indeed hundreds of prior shooting cases are going to have to be reexamined and many court cases retried to clean it all up. An expert without expertise? Likely many are in prison unjustly based on his testimony.
Meanwhile, yes: I will always think about it when I write such a story, just as I did this time. I thought you’d find my thoughts behind including this particular story useful.
11 August 2014 Update
There was a “weird suicide” story in this week’s issue, and minutes after sending out the Premium edition with that story, plus an editorial that pointed to this page, there were news flashes that comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide at age 63.
The irony of timing was palpable, especially considering that this page exists because of an irony of timing.
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