In keeping up with Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Drewby and Yergy delve into the case of Robert Budd Dwyer, an American politician who served as the 30th State Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He served from 1965 to 1971 as a Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and from 1971 to 1981 as a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate representing the state’s 50th district. Dwyer then served as the 30th Treasurer of Pennsylvania from January 20, 1981, to January 22, 1987, when he died due to committing suicide during a live press conference.
In the early 1980s, Pennsylvania discovered its state workers had overpaid federal taxes due to errors in state withholding prior to Dwyer’s administration. A multi-million-dollar recovery contract was required to determine the compensation to be given to each employee. In 1986, Dwyer was convicted for accepting a bribe from the California firm that won the contract. He was found guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering, and was scheduled to be sentenced on January 23, 1987. On January 22, Dwyer called a news conference in the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg where he fatally shot himself with a .357 Magnum revolver in front of reporters. Dwyer’s suicide was broadcast later that day to a wide television audience across Pennsylvania, including children that were home from school due to a severe snowstorm.
Throughout Dwyer’s trial and after his conviction, Dwyer maintained that he was not guilty of the charges for which he was convicted, and that his conviction resulted from political persecution. Former U.S. Attorney James West, who prosecuted Dwyer, affirmed Dwyer’s guilt, stating that “the evidence against Dwyer was overwhelming and indisputable”. All posthumous appeals made by Dwyer’s lawyers on Dwyer’s behalf were denied, and his convictions were upheld.
In 2010, Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, a feature documentary about R. Budd Dwyer’s life and the tragedy of his suicide, premiered at the Carmel Art and Film Festival in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with the Dwyer family in attendance. In the documentary, William T. Smith, a former chairman of the Dauphin County Republican Committee and one of the key trial witnesses in Dwyer’s conviction, admits that he lied under oath at his own trial about never offering Dwyer a bribe in hopes of reducing his own sentence and to spare his wife from being prosecuted for her role in the conspiracy. He expressed his regret for lying and the role it played in R. Budd Dwyer’s public suicide.
Although these revelations suggest that Dwyer may not have gotten justice, he did at least secure his family’s future. Since Dwyer died while still in office, his widow, Joanne, was able to collect full survivor benefits that totaled more than $1.28 million. Many close to Dwyer feel that he may have committed suicide to preserve the state-provided pension for his family, whose finances had been ruined by legal defense costs.
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