Saturday, October 22, 2016


The Spanish Inquisition  - from Wikimedia Commons
Under Suspicion
by Judith Cullen
© 2016

If you have not been, you do not understand.  If you have not been stopped by the police, or called in for questioning, or any of the other degrees of being suspected of committing a crime, you have no idea what this process is like and what it does to you.  You have no idea what it is like to know that you are innocent, and be in the power of people who believe fervently that you are not.  We are all raised on the notion that every citizens is innocent until proven guilty.  It probably seems simple to you.  If you are innocent, you have nothing to worry about.  Think again.

In reading the account in the Boston Globe, and artist SteveLocke's own account of being stopped by the police ("I Fit the Description", Dec 5, 2015) last year on his way to work at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design where he is on the faculty, I was reminded that "innocent until proven guilty" is a figure of law in America, not a figure of practice.  It is something lawyers remind citizens during voir dire, something that judges remind seated juries.  It is not something that happens on the streets in the midst of a crime investigation.  I am sorry to disillusion you. It does not matter who you are, being a suspect messes with your head.

Steve Locke as dressed the day he was stopped
complete with his faculty ID
It would surprise a lot of my friends and a few family members to know that I was a suspect once.  It was the spring of 1985, and I was wrapping up my first year of graduate school.  It had not been a great year.  Purdue was not the right choice for my graduate studies.  All sorts of things cropped up over the year to reinforce that point.  I rented an "efficiency" apartment where I shared a landing and a bathroom with a domestically violent couple and a large platoon of roaches. I contracted pneumonia at the beginning of the second semester and spent weeks sleeping in a recliner. Then, just as I was looking forward to moving home and regrouping (I was not being continued for the second year), I became a suspect in an arson case involving a school warehouse.

I had not set that fire.  An undergrad work-study student, who was also leaving the school at the end of term sans degree, and I had been among the last persons on the scene. We had been returning furniture pieces to the department storage.  We'd heard about the fire when we got back to campus. I received a phone call late that afternoon.  Would I come in for questioning?  Thinking I had nothing to fear, because I had done nothing wrong, I went.

What followed was four hours of questioning, including a polygraph test.  The detective tried everything in his arsenal to wedge open the slightest chink in my story of innocence.  You know that stuff you see on TV and in movies about clever maneuvers when questioning suspects?  It's not bullshit.  At one point the questioning Detective even said, suddenly, "So, you like ice cream, do you?"  I was stunned, and admitted I did.  Turns out he had seen me earlier in the day walking down a main street off campus eating ice cream with a classmate. 

"I saw you eating an ice cream cone with a tall girl in a jeans jacket."

"Detective, it was an ice cream sandwich and my friend was wearing coveralls."

Despite my seemingly self-possessed answer, after about 90 minutes I started to wonder if maybe I had actually done it.  If it had been an accident.  Matt had backed up the University van as we left, and hit the garage door.  Had a spark from the contact hit something and set it ablaze?  The Detective felt my wavering and pressed for a crack. 

After the polygraph test, while being questioned again, I finally said, "Look, I didn't deliberately set the fire, but after the last three hours I can't with all certainty say that something we did might have accidentally, unknowingly caused this."

"Why would you say that?"

"Because, after all this I am beginning to doubt my own possession of truth.  I watch TV, I have an imagination!"

After four hours I was released. It was my 23rd Birthday.  That also explains the ice cream.  I made it clear that I was planning to leave the state in the next two weeks and that I wasn't returning. The Detective blustered his way through everything but the cliché "don't leave town."  He said he would be in touch before I was scheduled to leave. He implied that his permission was required for me to do so.  He never said it directly.

I flew home to Washington with no intention of returning to Indiana, ever.  A few months later I sent the detective a postcard of Mount St. Helens erupting with the words "I didn't do this one either," scrawled across it.  That was when I found out that they had solved the crime. They were able to establish that a couple of University maintenance employees had set the fire. The motive was not shared, and I did not pursue it.

I understand entirely that Matt and I looked like prime suspects - students leaving the University with an ax to grind.  Except that's not me.  I am not, nor have I ever been, the vindictive-revenge type.  I was angry and disappointed at my failure to succeed, and I may have blamed the department or individuals at the time.  But the whole year had been mostly a bollix from start to finish.  That's what happens when you walk down a path and find out it is the wrong one - nothing works for you, nothing clicks. At some level I understood that.  I was happy to be going home, and smart enough not to put that approaching liberty in jeopardy.  Getting 2000 miles distant from a place where I clearly did not belong, was plenty of resolution for me.

And When Did You Last See Your Father, by William Frederick Yeames
1878 oil on canvas - public domain
But the doubt that was sewn during that four hours at the Lafayette Police Station was very real.  Sitting alone in a neutrally painted room for over 20 minutes, hooked up to a polygraph machine, my brain was churning and I was genuinely afraid.  I was afraid that they would not let me go home.  I was afraid that, despite my absolute certainty hours earlier, maybe somehow I had done it.  I was afraid that my life was turning into one of those cases you hear of on the late news where an existence is demolished for years before innocence is proven, just because someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So when I read the account of Steve Locke's encounter, I had some small understanding of what he went through.  I understand what it feels like to know you are innocent, and to have your word not be treated with even minimal respect, much less as truth.  I understand the frustration of having to stand up for your own good character, while someone questions it repeatedly. 

How much worse must this have been for Professor Locke, because he's a black male and I am a white female.  The account on his blog clearly expresses this.  He was afraid, as I was.  His fear was not of demolition and defamation, but of total destruction and death.  That is the tragic reality of our times.  It should not be that way.  I must not be that way.  "Innocent until proven guilty" should be more than a courtroom platitude.

If you have never been under suspicion, you do not understand.  A part of me hopes that you never, ever understand.  I do hope, for the good of us all, that you believe.

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